Oct 16 2009
Just the other day I was talking to a friend of mine, who at the ripe-old age of 33, went back to school.She hates it.Talking to her about it, I hated it too.I felt queasy, nervous.I had flashbacks.
Imagine getting up at 6:30 – in the wintery cold of New Jersey, no less! – to get lectured on things that wise old sages like us know are completely silly and inapplicable to real-world living?
Well, what if the act of learning this “useless and pointless knowledge” (to quote the wisest sage of them all) could somehow be less torturous?Less degrading?Less…shame-inducing?(OK, I never liked school; I’m “projecting,” as Freud would say.Or was it Jung?Whatever.)
StudyLance is a Web site that connects students with tutors.Here’s the process in a nutshell:
Student can ask a question and offers up how much they’re willing to pay for an answer.They must pay least £.50 (that’s 79 cents for you freedom loving Americans.)
All tutors view the question and then submit answers.
Students will see a preview of the answer and pay the tutor to see the full answer.
Once a student pays a tutor for help, they may rate the tutor.
Registration is free and tutors can haggle the students over the offering price.Students get answers; tutors get paid, learning ensues, everyone wins. So, as a former student, I loaded the site, dusted off my Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt, cracked open a warm Natty Light, and dove into this site with the naïve optimism of my former late-90s college self.After that, I grew up, bought a collared shirt, ordered a grande mocha latte, put on a beret and assumed the role of would-be tutor.Here’s what happened:
The Student Experience
Kids grow up so fast these days, it’s hard to tell if and how they’d use a site like StudyLance.But after hitting the landing page, it invited me to ask a question, which pulled me in right away.I was encouraged. So I typed in “What’s 2 + 2?” I wrote.The response was:“Your question isn’t long enough, it needs to be at least 20 characters!” I found this a little bit strange, since some questions will, inevitably, be short, like “Is there a God?” So instead, I wrote “What’s the square root of 81?”It was sufficiently long, and the site prompted me to specify my question by selecting choices from some drop-down fields, such as Subject (Mathematics) and Topic (General Math was the only option.) [FYI: Beer Pong is not a listed Subject.Bummer.]
Another drop-down box was “Level.”Options included “Undergraduate” and “Post-Graduate.”There were two levels I didn’t understand: GCSE and A-Level.Admittedly, I could have used some guidance there.(Since the site’s pricing is in pounds, I figured they were strange British slang terms, like bangers and mash.) I was particularly keen on the deadline option – it allows you to enter the date in which you need the answer by.The page also allows you to upload attachments to provide greater context for the tutor.Nice touch. I tried to post a question, but then balked at registering.When I hit cancel, I was taken to a strange broken page.So I registered.And here’s what happened next:
When I registered as a student, and was prompted to select my Country. I had only seven to choose from; all of which, conspiratorially speaking, are/were in the British Empire, where the sun never sets. It would be helpful to expand these options.
- Being in the US, I selected that; and next, when prompted to choose my State/Area, the only options were Boston, New York, and Texas.
Below that, I was prompted to enter the name of my School.Instead, it said, “School School” (a typo.) And, though I selected “Undergraduate” as my level of schooling, there were no selections in the drop-down box.Rather than producing a drop-down box of all 245,243 US schools, it would be easier to type it in.
After receiving my Activation email, I went to my profile.My choices for State/Area and School were still limited, though I was able to ask tutors questions, view the history of all my questions asked, and manage payments from one page. So, my profile set up, I then reflected on my question (“What is the square root of 81?), and by extension, the ethical considerations of StudyLance’s model.Namely, the elephant in the room: cheating. It was then that I thought about what the Strange Hippie Berkeley gal said….
What the Strange Hippie Berkeley Gal Said
A year or so ago, I was at a party talking to a Strange Hippie Berkeley gal (shocking, isn’t it?)My bike was stolen, and I was bummed.And she said something very telling: “You can only control what you do; but you can’t control other people’s behavior.” This idea applies to StudyLance in the sense that some students will want to have their homework done for them.(If no one’s ever seen similar ads on CraigsList, the brazenness of these rug rats is shocking!)
StudyLance addresses this explicitly in their FAQ page, asking, “Can I use Studylance to find people to write essays for me?”The answer, of course, is no:“Any student that asks for full essays will have the question deleted. If you see a question asking for a full essay, please use the ‘Report Student’ button. Studylance is about finding tutors to help you understand your coursework, not for cheating.” Yet, I had to ask, what about non-essay, black-and-white math questions?
To test my theory, I took a cursory glance of previously posted questions.One question was “Simplify: (4(x^3) + 2(x^2) – 8x) ÷ 2x.”The poster also had the audacity to note, “Show the work, please. Thank you!” The nerve of these kids.When I was their age, I walked 23 miles through the snow to answer that question and show the work. Which brings me back to what the Strange Hippie Berkeley girl said. StudyLance can create a cool collaborative environment complemented by self-policing mechanisms to monitor questions, but ultimately, it cannot control the actions and intentions of the students. Yet that’s precisely the beauty of StudyLance and other sites like EBay, Amazon, Craigslist, where user misbehavior is a necessary fact of life.It’s the free market in action.And we here at SlapStart will be curious to see how it plays out as StudyLance continues to grow.
The Tutor Experience
So the possibilities that StudyLance presents to would-be tutors are irresistible: who wouldn’t want to make an extra couple hundred bucks a month answering easy questions?Even moreso than the student experience, this aspect of StudyLance was most intriguing to me. So, six unsatisfying Natty Lights later, I clicked on Register, and effortlessly assumed my tutor persona.Here’s how it went down:
The Register page for Tutors is similar to that of the Students mentioned above in that it asks for Education Level and Country.For the latter, the choices are more expansive than the Student page, listing pretty much every country ever (even Vatican City!)That’s good.
The page also allowed me to enter my Qualifications, which is a great way to differentiate me from my would-be competitors.
Upon receiving my Activation e-mail, I was immediately prompted to check out all posted questions.I could also sort by Category and sub-Category, which was very helpful.
Feeling a bit more masochistic than normal, I chose Mathematics: General Math and the question, “How many of each color of shirt were sold?”I was taken to a page with a more in-depth question – and the four multiple choice answers posted below – and instantly became nauseous.Never a big fan of math (though I love me some shirts.)But there was the question, and the four answers to choose from.
As the tutor, I had three options: 1) Answer Question/Make Bid; 2) Ask Student a Question; and 3) Report Student.By clicking all three, free-text boxes appear where tutors can enter whatever feedback they’d like.Interestingly, for the “Answer Question” option, tutors may also enter Attachments to show the work, if necessary.
So after my little role-play with the aforementioned question, my hunch was validated: students can have their homework done for them.Especially if a few cash-strapped tutors are having trouble making rent.And that’s fine. That said, I also considered the feasibility of actually making serious money.Most asking prices per question ranged from $1-3.If the bidding process doesn’t work its magic, I as a tutor, would have to answer – ummm….well, it feels like a lot of questions. (Never a big fan of math.)
My tutor-persona experience from a usability perspective was positive.The process of answering questions was clean and efficient.As an additional bonus, each question has its own Discussion Board, a nice twist on the “free market” aspect of the site.It was then that I realized that these Discussion Boards would be a mechanism in which tutors can fight to the death if they come up with different answers to a student question. My only remaining concern from the tutoring perspective involved incentives.Namely, what if I, as the tutor, continue to post answers but get no student takers?I’d get bummed.But again, StudyLance has tools – specifically the “Ask Student a Question” option – that enables tutors to build a one-on-one relationship with students, which can only help.
Sufficiently buzzed from my student and tutor experience, I’d also like to post some high-level global comments on the site:
The FAQ link at the top of the home page is dead. (It works on the bottom of the page.)This is also true for the Contact page.
News page is barren.I’d suggest throwing something, anything, up there.
When I click on the Tutors page, I’m not sure the logic behind their ordering. I feel it would be best if it were by their rating.I’d also like to be able to sort them by Category.
I have nothing against the Brits.After all, they gave us the Spice Girls. That said, I wouldn’t mind the currency being in dollars too.
- When browsing topics by Question, certain Categories and Sub-Categories are more robust than others. Art, for example, has seven Sub-Categories, including Color Theory and Costume Design, while Mathematics has only one – General Math, which is strange since most questions thus far seem to be Math-related.
On the home page, it summarizes the process as: 1) Type your question, 2) Decide the price, 3) Choose the best answer.But if I, the student, don’t know the answer, how can I “choose” the best answer, especially if different answers are posted?Rather, Step 3 could read, “Review answers provided by expert tutors.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Power of Anonymity, and StudyLance
If I may end on one last college-related theme, I’d like to give a shout to my homie, the 19th century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Nate fervently believed that “unpardonable sin” is committed when one breaks away from the “magnetic chain of humanity.”In other words: it’s really, really bad to check out from society and become disconnected to your fellow man.
We’d like to think that when we’re on Facebook or Twitter, we’re doing the opposite – we’re connecting with distant loved ones in a meaningful way.Yet at the same time, these new tools also empower people to be anonymous, faceless and distant, never having to leave their room. Whether you feel that this is a good or bad thing, this power of anonymity is real and powerful.And it can really work to StudyLance’s advantage. Most students, as I imagine, may be willing to visit or e-mail their teacher a handful of times for tips, but on an ongoing basis, it can become too time-intensive.Some may feel self-conscious asking “stupid” questions over and over in class (remember kids: no such thing as a stupid questions!)Others simply feel more comfortable communicating over the Internet than picking up the phone, as anyone who’d rather e-mail their parents can attest. In the therapy world we call this “fear of intimacy.” In StudyLance-world we call this, a “cool, convenient way to ask questions and get quick, useful guidance without feeling dumb or having to walk across campus in the winter.”
And as I noted above, the site’s tools, such “Ask Student a Question,” puts the ball in the tutor’s court, incentivizing them to build strong relationships with students as anonymously as they’d like. My initial concerns about tutor incentives sufficiently minimized for now, I encourage StudyLance to work out the navigational kinks, expand its breadth of drop-down selections for registering students, and drill a bit deeper on the question Categories.In doing so, they’ll create a more streamlined, user-friendly environment that – cliche alert – enriches students (intellectually) and tutors (financially) alike.