Uber for Tutors?

Uber for Tutors?

The race to build the biggest and baddest on-demand tutoring platform is on. But is this just another case of “old wine, new bottle” from Silicon Valley?


Today there’s an Uber for everything—slick tools, backed by big capital, that tap into widespread economic insecurity, selling the same old middleman services and extracting some serious surplus value. Don’t call it sharing—it’s the on-demand economy. And part of what’s being demanded is a new regime of labor: unorganized, precarious, and dependent on a tech elite.

Tutoring—the oldest profession, for students and scholars at least—could be next. Despite a decade of false starts and dashed hopes, the latest attempt to build an “Uber for tutors” is Kram, an app launching at some twenty campuses this fall semester, billed as “the first ever mobile app that bridges the gap between tutors and students.” Co-founders Danny Lippman and Anthony Georgiades are students themselves, gearing up into full entrepreneurial mode. This summer, Kram’s Campus Representatives sent emails to their fellow students, encouraging them to sign up and sell their labor on the platform. Some 1,500 responded. Even if Kram doesn’t succeed, it will almost certainly have successors—the tutoring industry may not remain immune to deep-pocketed Silicon Valley disruption for long.

Is this just another case of “old wine, new bottle”? In every era, the well-to-do have demanded one-on-one or small-group instruction, tailored for themselves or their offspring. Plato instructed Dionysius II, the ruler of Syracuse in Sicily; Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great. Yeshiva boys across Eastern Europe made ends meet by holding private sessions for the children of local notables. The tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge paired impecunious scholars with Britain’s burgeoning elite, exchanging face time for funding.

Today, for every South Korean tutor pulling down $4 million a year, there are many more who come to tutoring as a stopgap strategy, a means to help put themselves through school or cover living expenses. The hourly wage may look decent on paper—much more so for the Ivy League grad with Park Avenue connections than for the small-town math tutor—but uncertainty is the rule. If only the hours weren’t so few and irregular; if only one’s “real” career would begin in earnest! The tutoring industry—predicted by at least one market research firm to be worth a cool $100 billion by 2018—is powered by the labor of students and young people who seem to be getting an ever-declining share of the profits.

Volunteer tutors can hardly keep up. Between schools, libraries, nonprofits, and informal arrangements, they make a valiant, ongoing effort to keep lower-income kids in the game. But the whole point of the tutoring industry is to use private means to get a leg up on the competition—on par with other personal services that now employ millions: life coaches, therapists, dieticians, personal assistants, trainers of all kinds. No one would deny that learners sometimes need individualized attention, but tutoring could only have reached its present fever pitch in an era of severe inequality, where those with the means hang tight to the top of the ladder while everyone else is encouraged to make do with MOOCs. (Tutoring aimed solely at intellectual exploration or cultural enrichment is pretty rare by comparison.)

Enter the apps. The race to build the biggest and baddest on-demand tutoring platform is on. If the on-demand economy is about monetizing “slack resources”—empty cars on Uber, empty rooms on Airbnb—here it means utilizing the “spare time” and spare brain power of students and young people struggling with high tuition and unsustainable debt. Signing on may seem like a solution, but at the systemic level precarious labor works its way ever deeper into the world of education. Prices drop, and usually wages with them. What grows is the role of the middlemen, the platform builders and app developers, because the only work we can find is in their virtual, hypercompetitive hiring halls.

If Uberization has yet to take over campus, it’s not for lack of trying. Tutoring startups are already legion: Tutorz.com, TutorVista, Wyzant, Studyroom, TutorPanda, TutorPace, Tutorlinker, Tutorspree, Motuto, to name just a few. Catering to looming deadlines and last-minute cramming, the on-demand platforms promise customers round-the-clock service, sometimes charged only by the minute or the question—a step above Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, but still virtual piecework for peanuts. Some of the startups have significant backing from venture capitalists ($21.5 million for Wyzant), and some no longer walk the earth (like the last three on that list). No single player has yet managed a Silicon-style disruption, despite the fact that this gigantic and obvious industry is tied up with tech-savvy youth.

This shaky start for tutoring apps, despite massive investment, undermines the idea that “disruptive” change is inevitable, that there must be an Uber for everything. Uber itself was far from an instant hit. “This sea change in behavior didn’t just happen over night,” Eric Goldwyn wrote of the rise of e-hailing services, “it was engineered.” Goldwyn quotes an estimate that these companies have spent a total of some $2 billion on outreach, education, branding, free credits, and other incentives. Remember that 75 percent of all VC-backed startups fail, according to one widely cited estimate. Despite the overheated rhetoric about a frictionless world, many people are putting up considerable resistance, if only by ignoring the self-styled disruptors and their offerings.

In the case of online tutoring, resistance from the labor market (expressed as a lack of tutors) may not be the problem—the hunger for labor in and around the academy is just too powerful. Some online tutoring sites claim to have thousands or even tens of thousands of tutors available, sometimes halfway across the globe in India (like TutorVista). Kram co-founders Lippman and Georgiades admit that online tutoring platforms are “already an oversaturated market,” but insist that their model is unique. The pair says that “independent tutoring agencies take between 50 percent and 80 percent cuts on average from their tutors,” whereas Kram lets tutors set their own prices and takes just 5 percent on top of that, plus a card processing fee. In the spirit of Tinder and Amazon Local, the app will connect students on the same campus, with a shared curriculum, for in-person sessions. Does that make the Campus Representatives, incentivized by the prospect of “university equity” (“a percentage of the revenue collected from their university”), effectively temp recruiters? Earning some disposable income is one thing, but if lower-income students end up selling their labor to higher-income classmates, is that just a fair, inevitable exchange? Or does something about student life fundamentally change once some students become on-demand service providers for others?

Already the term “work-study” shouldn’t name a particular program—it describes a normal, nearly universal condition. In 2011, a Census report found that 71 percent of all U.S. undergrads were working, and 20 percent of all students worked 35 hours or more all year round. (Students frequently cite the difficulty of balancing work and school as a major reason for dropping out of college; in other countries, the percentage of full-time attendance is higher, and higher education outcomes are better.) And it’s not just students: every variety of contingent labor now thrives on and around college campuses, from adjunct work to assistantships, fellowships, lab positions, internships, retail work, and more.

If Kram (or anyone else) builds a successful Uber for tutors, the world of on-demand consumption will bring yet another form of precarious work to college campuses. The “sharing economy” will do away with whatever is left of actual sharing, of asking your neighbor down the hall for help, and the pressure on low-income students will only grow. A school is a marketplace, education can be monetized down to the minute, students are a reserve army of youth labor—these are the emerging realities as student-workers return to campus.

Ross Perlin writes on language, labor, and politics.