But my 16-year-old son Cole? Smart. Really smart. Not off the charts Stephen Hawking smart, but…. he’s got gray matter to spare, even if he does his utmost to hide that fact from his teachers and classmates. (He gets it from his mother.)
And that has been an enormous problem for us, his doting parents. We discovered early on that Cole’s brain moves much too quickly for our public education system; he learned that whatever was going on inside his head was far more interesting than what was going on inside the classroom. This has been the bane of our existence ever since. I won’t go into our excruciating battles with his teachers or trying to persuade him to adopt alternative educational methods, since traditional high school is utterly boring and pointless. (My lovely wife does an excellent job of that here.)
We tried to tell him high school would suck. We made him watch Freaks and Geeks and every John Hughes movie ever made. But did he listen? No. He wants to be normal. Like that’s any great prize.
Long story short: Despite having a keen mind for mathematics, he is floundering in calculus. Endless sessions with Saul Kahn at the Kahn Academy were helping, but not enough. So we decided it was time for a tutor.
This did not sit at all well with my son, who aside from being one of the most stubborn bipeds on the planet is also a little freaked out by a) talking to a stranger, and b) admitting he doesn’t know something. So getting him to agree to a tutor took weeks of arguing.
Eventually I had to invoke the “no tutor, no computer” rule. If he didn’t agree to get some kind of academic help, he’d be back to using a pencil, paper, and abacus to do his homework.
We decided to try out a new online tutoring service called InstaEDU. (By “we” in that sentence, of course, I mean my wife.) It looked promising: Dozens of college students from the crème de la crème of higher education – Berkeley, MIT, Yale, Princeton, and so on – available to offer one-on-one help via video chat and IM for $24 to $30 an hour. And all of them looked like Abercrombie & Fitch models. At least, the ones on the home page did.
It looked promising, so I signed up and told my son to find a calculus tutor and set up an appointment. Predictably, a week passed and he had done absolutely nothing about it. So I set one up for him with Ross, a graduate math student at CalTech who’d won some teaching awards. Ross couldn’t do it at the time I requested (6 pm ET) so he suggested 9 pm. That was a little late but I said OK. I wanted to get this done. InstaEDU sent us both a confirmation email and a reminder with a link to the session. We were good to go.
At 5:40 pm on the day of the session I get an email from InstaEDU. Ross needs to reschedule; could we possibly do it at the original time, or 20 minutes from now? Surely I thought that was a mistake, so I contacted InstaEDU.
One of the nice things about InstaEDU is they have a “community manager” available via chat on their Web site. Community manager Sophie assured me this was not a glitch, Ross probably had someone cancel and wanted to see if Cole was available. If not, we could stick to the original time.
Because I wasn’t home and there was no way I could ensure that my son would actually attend the session, I said let’s stick to 9 pm. Sophie said that was fine.
At 6:20 I receive an email from Sophie. Ross called to say his car had broken down and he couldn’t make our 9 pm session. She’s looking for a substitute tutor and will get back to me. I am starting to suspect Ross has a hot date with another Abercrombie & Fitch model and is blowing us off, but I say OK, fine.
I ask my son to log in and make sure everything is working, which is when we run into our next problem: InstaEDU needs a login email and password for my son. Apparently I set these up when I signed up, but I can’t remember doing that (again, not surprising). I look in my gmail inbox; there’s no confirmation email from InstaEDU with that information in it. When I log into my own account (whose password I do remember) there is no way to access any information about my son’s account. It’s as if he doesn’t exist. I go back and forth a bit with Sophie on this before I just tell Cole to have InstaEDU to send him a password reset. It does, and after some nagging from me to check his inbox he’s able to log in.
Sophie emails back and says she’s found a great math tutor named Adam who would be happy to fill in for Ross. I say OK. So at 9 pm my son is sitting in front of his laptop with his calculus book, his homework, and a pencil, waiting. He wants to do this about as much as he wants to go have his teeth drilled, but he’s doing it nonetheless. I am proud of him.
At 9:05 he’s still waiting. Then it’s 9:10 and still no sign of Adam. I chat Sophie and ask her what’s up. She apologizes profusely, says this is “very uncharacteristic” of InstaEDU, and suggests Cole do an On Demand search to find an instructor right now. I suggest that to my son, who is less than keen. We decide to wait a few more minutes.
By 9:25 pm it’s clear that Adam is on a double date with Ross and two A&F models, so I persuade my son to try InstaEDU’s On Demand tutors. The result: “No AB Calculus tutors are available right now.”
Back to Sophie: “It looks like a couple of our tutors tried to connect, but weren’t able to get their video feeds loaded in under 5 minutes.”
I tell Sophie I am beginning to understand why InstaEDU still has the word ‘beta’ on its home page. (Though that doesn’t stop them from collecting money for these services.) She begs for another chance to connect my son with a tutor and I grudgingly agree. After another ten minutes she’s got one cued up for him, and I persuade Cole to go ahead with the session.
After that, things went fine. His tutor appeared in a small window on my son’s laptop. I heard giggling and talking and thought Cole was joking around with her, but then realized it was people in the background; apparently she was hunkered down over her laptop in a dorm room while her roommates were having a lively conversation.
I really expected him to cut the session short, but he stuck with it for 38 minutes. At the end I asked him. Did it help? Yes, he said, it did. Was it fun? He looked at me.
“Dad, it was a tutor.”
Would he do it again? Yes, he said, if he felt he needed it. OK then.
I told Sophie she owed me some free tutorial time for my pain and suffering, and she added an hour to our account. The next day I received a personal apology from InstaEDU’s CEO, Alison Johnston. She wrote:
I heard that you had a horrible time getting a calculus lesson for your son today, so I wanted to send you a personal apology. Our main goal is to allow students to get great academic support extremely easily, and today we obviously failed. Situations like this are rare but unacceptable. Study time is valuable, and it’s our job to make sure that we’re allowing students and their families to make the best possible use of it.
Johnston may have sent this because I was clearly so put out by this experience, or it may be because my email signature identified me as a member of the press, I’m not sure. But it was a classy touch nonetheless.
I really like the concept of having the best and brightest college students tutor my kids. But I remember what I was like in college – not the most rock-solid reliable human being on the planet. And I suspect the folks at InstaEDU are discovering that as well. Smart and attractive does not alone a good teacher make.
Lesson learned, I hope.