"We are addressing the bottom of the pyramid," says Krishnan Ganesh, an Indian entrepreneur, of his latest venture, TutorVista. It is a phrase that cheekily calls to mind the mass poor in his native country—but TutorVista, an online tuition service, is aimed squarely at customers in the developed world.
Mr Ganesh founded the company in late 2005 after spotting that personal tutoring for American schoolchildren was unaffordable for most parents. His solution is to use tutors in India to teach Western students over the internet. The teachers all work from home, which means that the company is better able to avoid India's high-wage employment hotspots. TutorVista further hammers home its labour-cost advantage through its pricing model. It offers unlimited tuition in a range of subjects for a subscription fee of $100 per month in America (and £50 a month in Britain, where the service launched earlier this year) rather than charging by the hour. Tutors are available around the clock; appointments can be made with only 12 hours' notice.
It is too early to gauge the impact of the service on educational outcomes, says Mr Ganesh, but take-up is brisk. TutorVista has 2,200 paying subscribers at the moment (most of them in America) and hopes to boost that figure to 10,000 by the end of the year. The company is expected to become profitable in 2008. Even cheaper pricing packages are on the way. Launches of the service are planned for Australia and Canada. Mr Ganesh is also investigating the potential of offering tuition in English as a second language to students in South Korea, where high rates of broadband penetration make the market attractive. Get that right, and China looms as an even bigger prize.
Mr Ganesh is gambling that the benefits of offshored services can be sold directly to consumers. Building trust for an unknown Indian brand is the biggest difficulty he faces. Having reassuring local managers fronting his operations in America and Britain certainly helps; so too does the fact that TutorVista's teachers are experienced hands, with an average age of 45 (many of them are retired). Quality control is vital: sessions are recorded and parents, student and teacher share a monthly call to discuss progress. As for the thorny problem of accents, Mr Ganesh points out that much of the communication is non-verbal—teachers and students write on a shared virtual whiteboard.
I don't know how I feel about this.
I have protectionist tendencies, having been raised in a very pro-union household. And I have trouble seeing how online tutoring could be even half as effective as one-on-one, person-to-person communication.
On the other hand, many people can't afford a private tutor, and there's always a shortage of affordable public classes. I'm all for the internet being used to help connect teachers and students in any way possible.
But I'm not in favour of dumping cheap labour onto the market, undercutting hard-won employment gains for teachers, who are already paid too little.
What do you think? Could this succeed? Could it ultimately hurt educators, or will the users be a different market, people who wouldn't normally hire tutors?
As an aside, I note that The Economist, a British publicaiton, often refers to the United States as "America". Because I got tired of hearing this favourite nitpick of the left, I have retrained myself to say "U.S." instead of "America". But this is one lefty line I don't tow.
The world over, including in South and Central American countries, the US is often referred to as "America". North America, Central America and South America are names of continents, but "America" by itself equals the United States, and in my opinion, that's OK. The only people who seem to care about this, in my experience, are Americans and Canadians.
I'll still do it, but I think it's silly.