Despite astonishing advancements in technology, the tutoring and test preparation business has remained fundamentally unchanged. Computer aided learning programs and online virtual tutor products promised to deliver individualized instruction to students at a fraction of the cost of private one on one tutoring. However, even as these programs have seen a steady increase in use, private one on one tutoring has grown considerable over the past thirty years.
The reality is that the benefit of one on one tutoring is very hard to replicate and tutoring itself has remained low tech. But technology is playing an increasingly important role in the business of tutoring.
Private tutoring is very effective. But managing the logistics of the tutor/student relationship can be quite challenging. Modern education centers grapple with this every day and many center owners entered the tutoring business because they saw opportunity and believed in the tutor model. Most quickly discover that managing tutors and students requires many hours of work and are drowning in a quagmire of administration. It’s likely that many owners would not have entered the tutoring business had they known what day to day operations are really like.
The role of technology in the tutoring business is not to supplant the tutor, but rather to support and automate the business of tutoring. Let’s take a look at a modern tutoring company both in-center or in-home. Here is the typical work flow.
Take a parent’s phone call. New clients are usually the result of a recommendation from a current or past client. Because the tutor / student relationship is built on trust, recommendations are by far the most common way to gain new business. Parents and students know this so they seek out recommendations from trusted friends. The first challenge for an education center is capturing the parent and student information and recording the parent’s concerns and objectives. The intake must gathering key data about the student, including current and past performance, challenges and motivation.
Schedule the student. Most tutoring companies are staffed by tutors with unique availabilities, varied qualifications, and schedules that change daily. This leads to a scheduling headache at best if not a scheduling nightmare.
Communicate information to the tutor. If the parent is going to pay hefty hourly fees, they want to make sure that the tutor has the information needed to work with their child. Making all information necessary to properly tutor a student available to the tutor is critical.
Record the results of tutoring sessions. What happened during the session in detail. Is the student progressing? Does the tutor need assistance? Are there ares the student needs to work on.
Communicate progress to the parent. Tutors and students have ample time to communicate. However, parents are not always available to talk between sessions. Many times students drive themselves to sessions, or the parent charged with managing the student’s education is not always present.
Capture ongoing conversations with parents. What was said two weeks ago? A month ago? Are there multiple administrators in a center communicating to the parent and and those messages consistent? What has been agreed upon? What message resonated with the parent?
Handle billing. Does the parent prepay? If so, then the center has to document how many sessions were purchases and when the credits run out. At that point the center has to get the parent to pay for more. Does the parent post pay? Then the center must create invoices and statements. Figuring out what is owed can be complicated.
Handle payroll. How much does each tutor earn? How many hours did each work? Does payroll match up with the sessions paid by the parent?
Get stuff done. Who is going to follow up with a parent that needs a call back? A parent wants to discuss summer programs in two months. Who is going to call them?
There are endless ways to drop the ball in operating a tutoring center. It’s enough to make one’s head spin. Keeping the plates spinning was certainly not what motivated educators and entrepreneurs to start their business. Yet, that is precisely what most owners are faced with. Technology can help them pursue their passion for education and make more money doing it!
Most tutor management issues are information management which can be addressed using a variety of software applications and services. There are several choices when choosing technology to automate the business of tutoring. A solution can be assembled using separate software and online services. Centers can use a commercial online service designed for tutor management and test preparation centers. They can also design and build their own online system.
There are infinite ways to assemble a system from pieces. Likely methods include a combination of Google Calendar and Google Documents and maybe an online project management system. The upside is that many of these products are free to use. The downside is that they aren’t designed for your business and how well or poorly you and your users can leverage these tools will be completely up to you. There will be no rules for how those systems are used and no business logic that makes sure what you need to have done gets done.
Because of the costs and risk associated, I don’t suggest that you build your own data management system. But if you feel you must, here are some suggestions:
- Design a system that is flexible enough to be changed and updated regularly.
- Budget tens of thousands of dollars, often times two to three times as much as you first expect.
- Be very thorough and detailed in your objectives when communicating to software engineers. Prototype systems as you go to make sure you and your development team are on the same page. It’s important to see the reality of how your system is going to work and will help prevent you from investing large sums of money on untested code.
- Take your time. Designs have to be developed and tested gradually to see how they work in a variety of situations.
There are many advantages to using an online commercial tutor management service. The product is likely designed for exactly the business that you’re in. It will likely both scale to handle your company’s growth, but also contribute to that growth by making what you do more efficient. You also won’t be spending time designing software or trying to piece together and monitor the use of disconnected products.
When looking for an existing commercial web-based solution, keep the following in mind.
Find a solution that is built by a tutoring and test preparation business. This is a complex business. Systems that are built for other industries or general purpose use may meet a few objectives, but they will never provide a comprehensive solution. Find something built by people who understand the business. A number of solutions on the market have been created by programmers new to the industry that saw a need and developed a solution they though would be work. These systems tend not to hold up well in the reality of a real world center.
Avoid systems originally developed for a specific company. It is not surprising that companies that invest hundreds of thousands of dollars on a custom solution attempt to recoup some of their costs by offering the solution to other companies. These systems are notoriously inflexible. Systems intended for use by a variety of companies must be designed with flexibility and customization from the beginning.
Avoid systems that charge based on your number of students. This is a classic pricing model. It might be cheap in the beginning, but costs more and more over time unless you are willing to remove past students from your system. Never do this. Historical data is extremely valuable. Look for a system the charges based on your usage. If your summer is slower, then you should pay less just like any other utility.
Look for services with long track records. If you go with a web-based system, then you will have to trust that company to protect your data and keep it secure and confidential. Companies with long track records, high retention rates, and strong testimonials are likely worthy of your trust.
Check references. Just like parents to your tutoring center likely found you through a friend’s referral, check the references of systems providers. If a company can’t find an actual company willing to use and recommend their product, it’s likely best to steer clear.
Look for systems that make it easy to communicate with parents. Remember, parents are your best referrals. Give them more reasons to refer you over your competition. Strong communication will turn problem students that need extra help into your best referral sources. You can be the parent’s first experience with a partner in education that keeps them informed and continues to work towards solutions. Remember, if you are communication valuable information in regular session logs, then parents are going to open your emails and you can include valuable branding in these communications.
Choose a system that makes it easy for an owner or director to oversee daily operations. Look for a system that pushes data towards administrators for special attention. Avoid those that require digging to find the data you need to make decisions.
There is a place for technology in the fast growing tutor business. But not necessarily as a direct part of providing instruction. Where technology makes the most impact is in the automation of data management and processes required to run a modern tutoring company. Take the time to find and evaluate services that can help your education center grow. Done right, it will allow you to educate more and administrate less.
About the author. Jared Wells has run his own successful tutoring and test preparation center in La Jolla, California for 18 years and is a co-founder of LearnSpeed.com, an online system for education center, test preparation center, and tutor management. LearnSpeed.com has been helping tutoring companies around the country manage their business since 2005.