Homeschooling, Learning Accessibility, and Education Platforms

I recently came across a blog post (via Mattermark) in which a venture capitalist, Boris Wertz, talks about the future of learning and mentions a project under way by another prominent VC, Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures, regarding homeschooling his children. So there are two things here that are fodder for thought: the homeschooling experiment itself, about which Albert has an entire blog series and which I’ll have to take a closer look at soon; and Boris’ post which has more to say about the potential for “the distributed school and customized learning” that the direction of Wenger’s experiment seems to predict.

The project that Albert and his wife are doing for their three kids (ages 11, 13, 13) involves hiring a learning guide for each child — not simply a tutor, but a kind of meta-tutor whose job it is to put together a learning plan, bring in tutors and mentors for various different subjects, arrange field trips and other learning experiences, and more. They state that the job of the guide is to explore areas of the child’s interest (including coordinating with experts), help them build and strengthen basic skills, and help them learn to overcome obstacles and challenges themselves. Albert describes the current interests of each kid, and says that the guides “should be creative and resourceful enough to put together programs, curriculae, and tap into experts in these particular areas of interest as well as core subjects.” This is awesome, because it seems like something I could excel at and enjoy doing — and in fact it’s kind of along the lines of what I aspire to do with SSG, but on a smaller scale, and more high-end and intimately personalized. As Boris describes it in his blog post (about which more below) the job is “part concierge, part program manager, and part learning specialist.” And yes, this clearly is costing a lot of money; Albert mentions in his blog comments that they’d be spending about as much on this as on Manhattan private school, which can run up to around $40,000 per year — extrapolate for three kids at once, and it becomes quite the interesting challenge to think about how this could actually scale.

Which brings me to Boris’ recent post, in which he talks about how he’s been thinking about “the best ways to make custom learning more accessible to kids, families, and adults alike.” He notes the expense and time and effort required to put together a program like this on a small scale, for an individual, but raises the question of what it might look like if this were made to scale — “what if there were a distributed school that followed the same principles?” He imagines this as being some sort of platform or marketplace where parents could easily find and hire guides/tutors in order to custom-tailor an education for their kids; he doesn’t go into much detail about what exactly this would look like, but does suggest that it could possibly be something that combines online and offline teaching/learning, that it could involve bringing in existing courses from other institutions (ostensibly things like MOOCs?) if they were suitable, and also having guides/tutors handle multiple kids to cut down on the costs that would still accrue with having the one-on-one relationships. That’s about all he lays out — it’s a short post, and seems to be mean both as a thinking-out-loud musing, sharing a dream that something like this might exist (“our family would be one of the first customers”) and also as a bit of a challenge or impetus for people reading this to take the ideas further. Which is, of course, exactly what I’d like to do!

I haven’t previously thought too much about the homeschooling and tutoring angle, at least not in great depth; I’ve been thinking more of SSG and the idea of self-directed education as something that college students and adult learners (or, at youngest, perhaps high school students) would find and use themselves as a resource; but now that I think about it, there’s probably a much larger market with parents who want the best for their kids and are willing to pay for improved learning experiences that might give them a lifelong edge — so I’m glad to now be reading about this, and look forward to thinking about this more. Just an aside: the other obvious angle for the sort of thing people would pay good money for relates to practical professional skills, areas applicable to business and marketing and technology. But this is a bit less appealing to me because in a way it’s still a lot more narrow and limited in perspective. Homeschooling for kids, and even general education for college students (not to mention teens on the cusp of college, with the associated anxiety of impending major life decisions and educational expenditures — now there’s a major inflection point rich in earning potential) seems much more open ended and all about pure learning and discovery. While it can (almost) never hurt to keep future careers in mind at all stages of education, parents don’t necessarily want their kids to be in vocational training from an early age — they want them to be creative and well-rounded and social and curious and driven and have great, well-rounded life skills. And whereas pitching these outcomes to adults may be a bit vague and a more difficult sell, I think they’re exactly the sort of thing parents want most, and will pay for.

Now, I’ve read plenty about how hard it is to create a two-sided marketplace, and the one Boris begins to propose could be even more complicated (involving parents/families + guides + tutors). Perhaps it would be best to start by focusing on the guides — find world-class people for that role, and then count on them to be responsible for bringing in experts, lining up experiences, and otherwise sourcing learning material. …It sounds like that’s how Albert and family set things up, establishing one point person for each kid, and to a large degree leaving the details up to them. Of course, this could scale to a certain degree pretty naturally, e.g. by hiring one “guide” per family, instead of one for each kid. …However, this might only bring the cost down to around low (rather than mid-) five figures, so it would still be quite expensive, at least for top talent — and this really would require top talent to work; it’s not the sort of thing that can easily be outsourced! Whereas something like virtual-assistant work can be performed much more cheaply abroad, a parent looking for someone to entrust with their child’s education path is going to want that person to be an impeccably educated and supremely competent individual, with boundless enthusiasm and phenomenal communication skills. In short, it’s going to cost; this may not be the sort of thing easily scaleable on a mass level, if we want to retain high levels of quality and personalization.

But there are things that could bring the cost down and perhaps at least put it in line with something that a more middle to upper-middle class family might be able to afford. I like the idea of blending online and offline; for example a guide could have a weekly (or even daily) Skype session with the child they’re guiding, to talk about the experiences the child has had, questions they want to talk about, and so forth — while the bulk of their day-to-day experience could be more local and self-directed. Anything from trips to museums and shows and cultural explorations around their city (much of this free of cheap) to study groups where they’d interact with other kids, under supervision of a tutor or rotating parent (something like a Self-Organized Learning Environment, or SOLE) to online study augmented by work with subject-specific tutors either online or in person. I think that the idea of the SOLE, while probably inadequate on its own, could be a great way to bring costs down if integrated as just one component among many others. And just in general, I think a really important part of any independent learning is socializing and interacting with peers, learning collaboration and teamwork, sharing experiences, and learning by both teaching and doing.

In terms of how I’d begin to implement this sort of an approach — well, I’ll have to put in a lot more thought about the structure and setup this would entail. I suspect that the absolute first alpha version could be just me creating a website and doing all the “learning guide” work myself, guiding a small handful of kids as a test run, doing all the curation and organization manually, …perhaps getting a friend or two on board to help. If early tests prove successful, then I could start thinking about how to scale further, improve the way it’s run, and even build a true platform. But even on a small scale, I think this could be sustainable and fill an important demand.

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