“Uber for Tutors” Looks to Disrupt The Education Marketplace

The classic origin story of tech innovation in America usually goes something like this: a few smart kids drop out of college, start a business in a garage and then move out west to set up headquarters.

But that was the old story, suited for the last generation of innovators, and the new origin formula for Millennials requires a few tweaks.

Firstly, these kids tend not to drop out of college. Coming of age during a recession culminates in a focus on financial caution, after all. Secondly, they eschew the garage for a coffee shop, because everything is done on laptops anyway, and coffee is cheaper than rent. Thirdly, they don’t move. Better to work remotely from somewhere like the Midwest, what with the cost of living in California being so high.

If that sounds less than romantic, so be it. For recent college graduates Ameya Deshmukh and Matt Deptola, this revamped formula has been working just fine.

The duo is now in the process of launching a new mobile platform called PeerUp, which aims to disrupt the current system by which college students find and receive assistance with their studies.

“I guess the easy way to describe it would be Uber for tutors,” Deshmukh told Opportunity Lives. “We saw a need for students that just wasn’t being addressed.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 9.06.26 AMPeerUp CEO Matt Deptola, left, and CSO Ameya Deshmukh. | Photo: PeerUp Instagram
Sitting outside a coffee shop in downtown Columbus, Ohio, Deshmukh and Deptola review their business model and make plans for the coming months.

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The air is cold, but both are dressed for warmer weather, too busy with their work to notice the icy wind that tosses coffee cup lids off tabletops.

By the start of the next school year, the duo plans to partner with area universities for a pilot test-run of sorts, giving students a chance to use their app and develop a community.

“The mission of any university is to help students succeed,” Deptola said. “The problem is how to target individual students to cater to their learning needs in a system where students tend to be just blips in a larger crowd.”

The goal of the PeerUp system, therefore, is to help students connect with knowledgable tutors amongst their own classmates. Deshmukh sees the problem as having spawned from the ever-growing bureaucratic system of higher education. A student in an average university today might sit in a lecture hall with 500 other students. This large crowd has an isolating effect, Deshmukh said, as the size of the crowd limits personal questions from the students while the professor has an increasingly limited time to aid students one-on-one after class.

This is where PeerUp comes into play. Students can log onto the app using their smartphone, select their university and classes, and see all students who are knowledgable in that area. The app allows for precision, even to the point where students can select tutors who have previously taken the class under the same professor with whom they need help. For tutors, all they have to do is fill out a brief application, create a list of classes and professors they have studied under, and wait to be connected.

Just like Uber, students can choose whether they need help now or later, and all interactions are done in a private market, with students paying other students for their time. This community aspect will include a rating system to ensure quality control.

The goal of the PeerUp system is to help students connect with knowledgable tutors amongst their own classmates
As Deshmukh sees it, the current system of tutoring is often disorganized and unpredictable, with students blindly being set up with tutors through their university, and with the quality of these tutors often in question. To fix this, the PeerUp system aims to create a laissez-faire structure around which students can elevate one another without having to go through the bureaucratic system present in today’s model.

“And going further than that, the simple fact is students are already overburdened with costs,” Deptola said. “With tuition, room and board, textbooks and so on, a student who is already crippled with loans can feel disillusioned when they have to pay additional high rates just to get some assistance.”

Expanding on this issue, PeerUp also aims to create a system by which students can connect for the sake of mutual benefit, at no cost. Any recent college student knows the strains of midterms and finals week, when the library is packed with sweaty bodies all hunched over desks. During these late nights, the sight of another student in one’s class can often lead to a collaboration, in which students share notes and study together.

With PeerUp, no longer are these collaborative study sessions merely serendipitous. Students can simply log onto the app, note the class or subject they are studying and see all students in the area who are studying the same subject. This allows students to message one another and meet up to work together – no money exchanged, just a coming together for mutual benefit.

However, the problem with rolling out a disruptive technological platform is convincing the already established system of its benefits.

In this case, the question is how to get universities on board.

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 9.15.49 AMMuch like popular ridesharing apps like Uber or Lyft, PeerUp allows students to find a tutor right on their phones. | Photo: PeerUp Instagram
“To get schools involved, we needed to incentivize them,” Deptola said. “The way we do this is by providing the University with data on the student body’s academic experience. We can see where students are struggling – what subjects, what course models – and use that to determine problems and, going along that line, we can find solutions to those problems.”

The goal is to use data-driven analytics to hone a better learning experience for students across the board. This will allow the university to identify problem areas and correct these problems, which the duo said will lead to higher retention rate, an increased course completion rate and a better student learning experience overall.

“Our ultimate goal is provide that value back to universities,” Deshmukh said. “Students are the customers at the end of the day, so their experience will ultimately sell the university to other students, and a better university leads to more funding, while at the same time alleviating the burden on universities to provide their own system for tutoring.”

The duo is still a way’s off from their end goals. Ultimately, the process of turning a good idea into a marketable platform takes time. But with the advent of the internet and a massive pool of resources on their computer screens, they have been able to move at a speed that would’ve been unheard of in the days when young entrepreneurs worked out of their garages.

“This is an inevitability,” Deshmukh said. “We’re seeing a trend where more and more established systems are being disrupted by these crowd-sourced models. We just saw a problem with the current system and are working to create something better. At the end of the day, we’re situated to change things by connecting people, and so we’re capitalizing on that opportunity.”