Catching up with the co-founder of a platform hosting the largest community of pro tutors.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Their first year out of college, friends Andrew Geant and Mike Weishuhn began a journey that they didn’t know the ending to, also known as an adventure. “When you start a company with someone, you are entering into a relationship that’s statistically more likely to fail than the average marriage,” Andrew has written regarding his experience, which started back in 2005.
Despite any low times (nearly moving into Andrew’s parents’ basement, taking out a last-second $200,000 emergency loan, etc.), their company didn’t fail. They rose up, began to flourish, and the Chicago-based company is now more than 100 employees strong and thriving.
The in-person and online lessons they provide in over 300 subjects using more than 80,000 tutors have totaled more than 1 million lessons delivered.
Helping students reach their goals, the company has accomplished many of their own. Here, Andrew breaks it down for other edtech startups wondering what it takes and—for leaders and learners everywhere—he shares his own hard-won knowledge one-on-one with EdTech Digest.
We actually first chatted back in 2012, but Andrew has been adding to the digital marketplace he’s created that has connected students to independent tutors, a first-of-its-kind learning venture dedicated to moving individualized learning forward. The company has since developed numerous best-in-class products bringing students and instructors together.
“One-to-one learning works,” says Andrew. “We’ve believed that from day one. But we also knew it would work better if it were accessible, affordable, and more convenient for everyone. So that’s what we’ve built—an easier way to connect people who need to know with the experts that can teach them. And we’ve changed the way people think about education in the process.”
Our last interview was way back in 2012—a lot has happened since then!
Andrew: You’re right, a lot has happened. One of the biggest changes we’ve taken is our focus on online learning. About five years ago, we became convinced that the future of tutoring was online. With this in mind, we started heavily investing in our online capabilities. We acquired Tutorsbox, a leading online education tool, in 2014.
Once users saw they were no longer limited to tutors in the same city as them, our numbers for both tutors and students skyrocketed. Now, our online tutoring sessions are growing 100 percent year over year and 55 percent of our lessons are online.
Another big change is in the amount of interest we’ve seen from adult learners. In the last year, we realized adults were just as eager for the kind of one-on-one educational support we’ve offered to K-12 students for over a decade.
This year alone, 60 percent of our new signups were adults – a 33 percent increase from last year – and a 200 percent increase since 2015. This includes traditional college students, nontraditional college students, and professionals looking to increase their skills at work.
Over the years, we’ve been trying to solve gaps in access to quality education for people of all ages and we think we’re well on our way to doing so.
What are the biggest challenges or trends you’re addressing in the space right now?
Andrew: Education still leans very heavily on a structure that’s geared toward the “traditional” student. This means anyone not following the typical “K-12, then four years of college” track has an increased risk of getting left behind, no matter how much they want to learn or increase their skills.
Wyzant addresses the educational gaps in three key areas:
• Nontraditional college students: Almost 74 percent of all undergraduates are considered “nontraditional.” This includes part-time students, students that enroll in college later in life, students with kids and first-generation students. The graduation rate for returning learners sits at just 33.7 percent, and it’s only 21.9 percent for part-time students. To make matters worse, only a little more than half of all schools (58 percent), offer services tailored toward these students.
• Online-only students: Online-only students make up about 18 percent of the total college student population, and online-only campuses have increased steadily over the last 14 years. But few of these students have access to traditional support systems like office hours and tutoring – after all, there is no online student union where you can meet up for a group study session.
• Career learners: People who are trying to build professional skills also suffer under this structure because they typically don’t have time to pursue a traditional degree or certificate. According to a study by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, almost nine out of 10 of these learners rank “receiving the help [they] need to stay on track” as highly important, but only a little more than six out of 10 feel they actually get that support.
We offer the infrastructure to support those left out by mainstream education. We help learners connect one-on-one with more than 75,000 subject matter experts in 12,000 topic areas, from anywhere and at any time, for as many sessions as it takes for them to master concepts they’re struggling with.
Thanks to online tutoring, our resources aren’t tied to a physical setting or traditional “office hours.”
And our services go beyond homework help or preparing for the next test.
Our platform makes it possible to learn from professionals in the field so that learners get career mentorship along with practical, skills-based guidance.
What changes have you seen in digital learning in just the last year or so?
Andrew: One of the major trends in education in the last couple of years involves using data to personalize learning. Among other applications, there has been significant progress in leveraging predictive analytics to identify at-risk learners sooner. Now the challenge is determining the appropriate remedial interventions to deploy and figuring out how to do it at scale. One-on-one, relationship-based tutoring through Wyzant is one proven solution.
Another ongoing trend is the increasing popularity of online learning videos.
For K-12 learners, YouTube and Khan Academy are top choices.
Other platforms such as Pluralsight and Udemy are popular for adult learners. Online video learning has the tremendous potential to democratize access to high-quality education. And there’s no doubt that it can be highly effective for motivated, self-directed learners. But for many students who have knowledge gaps or different learning styles, the role of the instructor or tutor continues to be crucial to their success.
We’re also seeing working professionals, who we call career learners, realize that wanting to make yourself more relevant and employable doesn’t mean you have to go into massive amounts of debt for additional degrees or time-consuming certifications.
The rise of online resources such as curated video content, MOOCs (massive open online courses), and platforms like our online learning tool makes it possible to learn these in-demand skills in a cost-effective way.
Learners who use technology can now gain the skills they need the most, without struggling to retain information they don’t need to know, as might be the case in a graduate program, where your courses are determined by the school or professor, not the skill set you might need at your job.
What type of learners are using your platform most often?
Andrew: Though we started out as a K-12 platform, adult learners now make up the majority of our users. They’re on pace to log 600,000 of the 1 million tutoring hours we expect to have by the end of this year.
We’ve also seen a surge in the number of online tutoring sign-ups we’re getting. Last year, just 25 percent of our signups were online-only.
This year, we saw that number spike to 70 percent, indicating an increased reliance on digital learning options that aren’t bound by geography.
Any recent student or tutor success stories you’d like to share?
Andrew: We’ve had a lot of success with adult students using tutoring to help them get ahead when they go back to college.
One student used Wyzant to help her find a math tutor so that she could pass algebra when she went back to college to study accounting and business management. She had a unique set of challenges because she was dyslexic but she was determined to do well so she could set an example for her teenaged sons.
Kari needed someone to help her complete her Algebra formulas and through Wyzant, she connected with Bob, an experienced math tutor.
Bob was well-versed in teaching students shortcuts to complete math problems and his expertise helped Kari pass her class and fulfill her math requirement in school.
How do you see your offerings evolving over the next five years?
Andrew: Universities are starting to notice the impact of online tutoring, and our platform in particular, on students. We’re now partnering directly with higher ed institutions and seeing tremendous results. One of our western partners saw a 28 percent increase in course completion for students using Wyzant.
What we hope these partnerships will do is provide relationship-based support and mentorship to the students who need it most: non-traditional students who are at risk of failing or dropping out without the proper resources and support.
Our initial numbers are encouraging because they demonstrate that schools can have an impact on educational outcomes by offering individual support tailored to a student’s exact needs from an expert tutor.
In the next five years, we expect that more universities will turn to us to support their students and boost retention – and, in turn, boost both their outcomes and revenues.
On the professional learner front, we’ve seen an uptick in searches for tutors in categories related to technologies and skills that are common in today’s workplace: SixSigma, SPSS Statistics software training, and Adobe Illustrator. There have also been searches related to different professional licensing exams like the US Medical Licensure Exam (USMLE) and the Series 7 exam for financial professionals. We expect this trend to continue as more professionals seek specialized skills that make them more attractive employees.
Your thoughts on technology’s role in education?
Andrew: Technology is making education and educational support available to a broader range of people. You can now access knowledge and information anytime and anywhere. For example, the rise of online learning tools like ours makes it possible to learn virtually any topic at a pace that works for you. You’re no longer bound to classrooms and 4-year degrees – technology is making education more accessible.
We’re also seeing technology change learning spaces into more agile, collaborative environments. Platforms like ours as well as Skype, Google Docs, and Slack make it easy to connect and share work with people anywhere in the world. A student doing an assignment can reach out to someone in another state or country for help. A professional trying to sharpen their skills in a foreign language has the ability to connect and converse with a native speaker.
Broadly speaking, what is the state of education today?
Andrew: Our education system has significant challenges at almost every level. K-12 students are being taught according to standardized tests that often don’t address the way every child learns or play to individual strengths.
And students who fall behind in math and science are being told (implicitly and sometimes explicitly) that they aren’t cut out for a STEM career. In other words, we’re blaming and penalizing kids for the failings of our system.
Higher Ed isn’t much better when you look beyond the elite universities. Right now, America sends more people to college than it sees graduate. Adding to this problem, debt is a crippling reality for most students, whether they finish college or not, as they struggle to pay off their loans with jobs that often don’t pay enough.
For professionals, the rise of the gig economy has meant fewer workers have access to on-the-job training – now, many workers are responsible for their own professional development.
Thankfully, technology has the promise to help address all of these problems. Websites like Wyzant are making it possible for learners to get the help they need wherever they are in life.
Victor Rivero is Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org