Helping Homework Go Online

How is technology reshaping education?

Cigale: Just about everything schools do these days is tracked in some way because of the No Child Left Behind law. There is an increased need to show accountability from the school district, right down to the classroom. All types of student information systems have been put into school districts providing visibility to how kids are doing. Teachers and administrators are looking for software or multimedia training for teachers as well as for students to increase accountability. But it’s not just about having computers and laptops in the classroom. It’s about how technology used by teachers improves student performance and student test scores.

Is the required skill set the same for students today as it was prior to the Internet explosion?

Cigale: Today, there’s so much more information available to students, and so many more technology tools that simplify previously difficult tasks, that if you don’t know how to use the Internet, if you don’t know how to manage your contacts and use communication tools efficiently, you’re going to fall behind. Surprisingly, it’s often the parents and the teachers who are lagging behind. In the world of education, better professional education and encouraging teachers to learn about the tools that students are already using is really key.

What were the challenges you faced bringing tutoring online?

Cigale: Retail and other industries jumped online quickly because of the huge financial opportunity in serving new kinds of customers and serving customers more efficiently. Unfortunately, education systems are not attuned to the same financial and market incentives, so they often lag behind other sectors in terms of technology and innovation. In education, teachers are gatekeepers in many ways. Even the best of technologies purchased by school administrators often don’t make it through to the classroom because teachers don’t have the tools, time or the motivation to figure out how to use them. went around the established education system and sold directly to public libraries. Once we established that as a core part of our business, we went straight to parents and students and said, “You know that great service you’ve got in your library? You can have an even more customized, better experience from your home, 24/7.”

What is driving education on the web, technology or marketing?

Cigale: Problem-solving drives all marketplaces on the web through a combination of both technology and marketing. Technologically, has a real-time learning environment and everyday, about 5,000-plus one-to-one live-sessions between a student and a tutor take place. This was impossible ten years ago. Logistically, we run a very complicated, almost call center-like operation with tutors dispersed in thousands of locations across the US and Canada. So concurrent connections, threaded processes as well online educational tools are vital to the growth.

From a marketing perspective, staying front-of-mind is our biggest challenge. When a child is stuck doing a homework assignment or can’t understand a concept they’re going to have on a test tomorrow, making sure that the child and his/her parents are aware that a live tutor is available for one-to-one help immediately, 24/7 is an ongoing online marketing challenge even for us as the market leader.

What are you most excited about when it comes to changing the face of education online?

Cigale: The huge potential is extremely exciting. It drives me every day. I’ve been running this company for almost ten years, and when we started, kids were barely instant messaging. Now, 99 percent of teens are instant messaging all the time. I’m convinced that ten years from now, online tutoring and online education will be something as commonplace and mainstream as kids instant messaging with one another. Brandeis University did a study showing that the biggest significant factor in reduced productivity during afternoon work hours is that kids are coming home and calling their parents and instant messaging their parents for help on homework that they’re struggling with while the parents are still at the office.

How does privacy affect, especially with personal data going between student and teacher?

Cigale: We look at the information flow very carefully and architect our systems to make sure we’re taking into account student privacy and parent transaction privacy. In the education industry, when you’re dealing with minors, it becomes even more complicated with the regulations of Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Today, it just has to be one of those core requirements in business – like making sure the bridge stands up when you’re trying to create a new transportation system.

Consumers and users have more of an online voice than ever before. How has this affected your development strategy?

Cigale: We’re really developing a new way of learning, and when you’re trying to bring that type of innovation to any kind of market, especially one that moves fairly slowly, you need to make sure the company is very marketing and sales oriented.
I try to give our technology staff a real understanding of the business and goals, and give them the power and flexibility to suggest and implement major improvements, release enhancements and revisions. At the same time, we have to make sure none of those revisions and enhancements bring our systems down or significantly reduce reliability and customer satisfaction.

In our library business, we don’t make lots of changes and we have release cycles of roughly six months. But in our consumer business, where we need to learn every day from interactions with new customers, we do releases every week or two. So managing according to the business needs is really important to the tech team.

It’s not just about releasing the next cool feature in an online classroom because the technology folks think it’s cool and it makes the classroom more powerful. Instead, we ask: does that feature really change the value of the service to the student at the end of the day, and will that student be more likely to tell lots of other friends because of that feature?