I have come across a modest yet revolutionary concept from an Indian startup by the name of Tutorvista. The concept is not a complex one, but if this company or others like it are even moderately successful with this business model, we stand to chip away at one of society's most stubborn obstacles to economic upliftment.
Tutorvista offers unlimited online tutoring in English and Mathematics for just $100 a month, as well as preparatory coaching for standardized tests at fees under a tenth of those charged by traditional brand-name classes. All 500+ tutors are in India, have degrees in education and the subject taught, and work from home. I believe there are about 2500 students subscribing to the service to date. Tutorvista does, however, need to make substantial improvements to their website if they hope to acquire hundreds of thousands of new customers.
The tutoring sessions are interactive through the use of technologies that were not even available to consumers just 7 years ago. Real-time verbal dialogue is conducted via VoIP, while an onscreen electronic whiteboard enables written exchanges. Soon, low-cost videoconferencing technologies will combine with high-bandwidth Internet connections to expand interactivity into not just face-to-face lessons, but even multi-party discussions with each participant's face in one division of the screen.
Normally, such tutoring would cost $30 to $50 an hour or more. Yes, pessimists, racists, and socialists (sometimes the same people) will whine about private tutors losing their wages to 'outsourcing'. But this loss is dwarfed by gains derived from having access to competent individual tutoring now available to underprivileged or simply ambitious students in America. Is a 5th grader so keen on algebra that he wants to soak up 8th grade material? The risk to parents is just $100 (and even that fee can probably be transferred to a lower grade if the material turns out to be too advanced). Does a student feel embarassed about persistent difficulties with a particular subject? This model offers privacy that did not exist before.
Of course, to benefit from Tutorvista, an American student needs both a broadband connection and the self-discipline to study hard. It is arguable that students for which these two conditions are true do not corelate very closely with those who need the most help. Yet, I could predict the formation of innovative scholarships devised to grant high-school students some form of 'unlimited Tutorvista access until high-school graduation'. It may even become a popular perk offered by the parent's employer.
This, like Skype, Wikipedia, Zillow, and MapQuest, is yet another dramatic deflation in the costs (whether monetary or time/hassle-oriented) of accessing a key human need, and is a necessary step in the acceleration of economic growth. If Tutorvista or a similar company can succeed, the benefits to the US, Indian, and global economies will colossally dwarf the losses of in-person tutor wages and private school fees. Step back and take a moment to ponder what you have just read - the paradigm for the delivery of education has just changed.