In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, any business or social activity that can be moved online was moved online. And that includes education, with schools shutting down around the world and many shifting to distance learning.

It’s not just classrooms that have gone virtual, but also after-school tutoring sessions.

The global coronavirus outbreak is now driving greater awareness and adoption of online tutoring platforms that make it easy for students to connect with tutors and get the extra help they need, while avoiding face-to-face contact.

“I don’t want to be opportunistic in a negative way here,” says Ned Renzi, general partner at Birchmere Ventures and investor in online tutoring platform Paper. He spoke to sister title Venture Capital Journal in March soon after the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

“Paper’s phones are ringing off the hook right now,” Renzi says. “And frankly we don’t have enough people to deal with the demand, especially in geographies where they have started closing schools. Our inbound calls today are significantly higher than they were a month ago.”

As schools shut their physical doors, they are wondering how to deal with the health crisis while still providing a quality education to their students. And many are realising that a tutoring platform like Paper (which changed its name from GradeSlam in March) can be highly beneficial in these uncertain times.

Woody Marshall
Marshall: Connecting the right tutor with the right student is key

“Schools and their students are greatly expanding their use of the Paper platform,” Renzi says. “We’re seeing a situation where students who might have used us less frequently are now using us more because they are no longer seeing their teachers face-to-face and can’t just stay after class to ask for help.

Renzi believe that online learning overall will continue to grow in popularity, even after coronavirus fades, because so many more students are now being introduced to the concept, either voluntarily or involuntarily, and they are getting more comfortable with the ease and convenience it provides.

“Whereas online learning was once just a niche market, it is quickly becoming a primary way in which we educate our students. And online tutoring will be a big part of that shift”
Woody Marshall, TCV

Paper is a little different to most online tutoring platforms in that it is sold directly to school districts and not to individual students or their parents. The platform augments in-class learning with live, online access to expert tutors in math, physics, science, and English for students from kindergarten to 18- or 19-year-olds. Paper says its mission is to democratise tutoring and ensure that every student has access to tutoring assistance, not just those who can afford it.

“Having a tutoring should not depend on wealth or privilege,” says Renzi. “It should be a service that schools provide to everyone at one cost.”

He adds that a key advantage of Paper is that it puts personalised teaching within the budget of most schools. The Montreal company’s main selling point is that is provides unlimited tutoring at one-tenth the cost of traditional models, making one-to-one learning financially accessible in a way that’s never been done before.

Paper recently raised a $7.5 million Series A led by Reach Capital with participation from Bullpen Capital, Birchmere Ventures, Google and others.

The company has already partnered with numerous school districts in the US, including Irvine Unified School District, Springfield Public Schools, Sequoia Union High School District and Denver Public Schools.

There are other, less ominous, reasons why the time is right for online tutoring.

“A decade ago, neither schools nor students were set up for online learning,” Renzi says. “There were no educational policies in place to manage it. Today, those policies are increasingly in place. What’s more, every student now has a smartphone in their pocket or a laptop in their backpack. Quite simply, the technology is now where it needs to be to make online tutoring happen on a broad scale.”

The US online tutoring industry skyrocketed to $633.3 million in 2020, according to IBIS World, growing 6.2 percent annually. But that’s still a tiny slice of the overall market. Zion Market Research says the global private tutoring market was valued at about $96 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach about $177 billion by 2026.

Better, faster, cheaper

Woody Marshall, a general partner at TCV, says he invested in online tutoring platform Varsity Tutors, which has raised $107 million, because he saw an opportunity to grow the total available market.

“The big issue with tutoring is connecting the right tutor with the right student,” he says. “If you want to find a Latin tutor in a major urban center, that’s probably not so hard. But what if you live in Boise, Idaho or a small town in the heartland? Then finding that Latin tutor might not be so easy.”

Marshall says with an online tutoring platform like Varsity Tutors, you don’t have to worry about supply and demand in those smaller markets. A student can find a tutor anywhere, and a tutor can find a student anywhere. That means you are now opening the market to students who might not have had access to tutors in the past.

“When that happens, you can also start to offer lower prices,” he says. “A math tutor in New York is probably a lot more expensive than one in Des Moines. There are certain students who limit their tutoring due to price, so with lower prices and greater availability you can further grow and expand the total available market.”

He also likes the fact an online tutoring platform like Varsity Tutors can offer features and experiences that exceed what can be done with in-person tutoring. For example, if a student is about to take a maths exam, but suddenly has a brain freeze, the student can log on to Varsity Tutors and within seconds connect to tutor a who can help them review, say, the Pythagorean theorem.

“The whole promise of technology is the ability to do things better, faster, cheaper, and that exactly what online tutoring is delivering,” Marshall says.

Covid-19 impact long-term?

Another interesting company in the market is Yup, which has raised $23.5 million from Sesame Ventures, Floodgate, Slow Ventures and others. The company provides 24/7 unlimited access to math tutors for a flat fee. Students snap a photo of a maths problem, connect to a tutor in under 60 seconds, and start solving the problem together over app-based messaging and mobile chat.

As for the long-term impact of the coronavirus on online tutoring platforms like Varsity Tutors and Yup, Marshall says it’s too early to tell. But he thinks that as more schools close and start to bring education online, it will further raise awareness around distance learning in general.

“I would argue that an educational company that has online options will fare much better than those with just face-to-face options,” he says. “Whereas online learning was once just a niche market, it is quickly becoming a primary way in which we educate our students. And online tutoring will be a big part of that shift.”