My Experiments with English Tutoring Models

An experiment is a set of steps or a procedure conducted to examine the validity of a hypothesis, or to determine the efficacy of something previously untried.

Hypothesis: Indians aspire to speak and learn good English. Both Indian society and Indian businesses make it very compelling for individuals at any stage in their lives, to improve this skill. Yet we find that enough adults lack this basic skill.  We believe that effective and easily accessible solutions will make a difference.

Inspiration: I often encounter sincere and hardworking people who struggle with English. I see them crave for the fluency and comfort that comes so easily to those of us who have the benefit of a convent education and/or adequate exposure to English.

Every country where all citizens have a  single comfort language is better organized, better informed, and better equipped to take full advantage of today’s hyper-connectivity to make the country better. The most fundamental social connection between two people is language. If every Indian irrespective of his education and social standing can share this connection with every fellow Indian,  we can become a force like no other – not just in business but also for joining hands for every issue of national importance.

I want India to be no different from US, China or Japan on this dimension. I love the fact that we have 20 languages. I have created products for transliteration and translation, and distributed them for free, so I am clearly not anti-language but I am anti-barriers. I’m not asking for us to reverse the skewed readership numbers of Indian newspapers nor am I asking people to forget their mother-tongue.  I am asking for us to add a skill not subtract. If we can add Java, C++, KPO, BPO, and even fake an American accent, how hard is it to add ‘comfortable with English’ to everyone’s real profile. Every Indian already has the fundamental background to achieve this – he can understand and speak one language. So, make him speak  two, and then hopefully read and write both.

I remember an employee of mine attending a local spoken English class for Rs. 8000, and yet not showing any improvement. I spoke to other employers and they had similar experiences.

This is a big need and yet no one is offering a solution that works. That got me thinking. How can one provide a scalable model to offer Indians comfort in English? Why isn’t there a national consumer brand catering to this need?

Existing Solutions

  • Spoken English classes at every corner of every major city or town in India
  • Books such as “Rapidex spoken English course”
  • Training Institutes and Corporate training programs for large groups
  • CDs, learning software, mobile learning packs, online videos, courses

Why these solutions don’t seem to work?

All solutions on the market follow a one size fits all approach.  The course material and class content is fixed. Students are often grouped together and taught in a fashion that requires extraordinary self-motivation and self-practice to gain real fluency. 

However, common sense dictates that this approach would work with children and not with adults. It can work when the goal is precise and has a fixed syllabus such as GRE/TOEFL/ICSE exam. It is definitely not aligned with the subjective goal called “fluency”. Each adult has already spent 20 years of his life accumulating an accent and a range of English mistakes based on his background, city, mother-tongue, education, parenting, friend circle, and other language-based influences. How can you offer a single inflexible group-based solution and hope that each person improves? When the English mistakes are not known, how can you pre-decide the course to fix them?

What about complexes, biases and mental makeup of the adults? Their minds are not flexible like those of children. Will they overcome these easily and speak freely in group learning or will most of them choose to passively absorb and participate when necessary? The fear of looking stupid is a very real problem, especially when speaking English.

Someone rightly said, “The best way to learn English is to speak it.” You cannot discount the value of speaking a language. It’s no different that learning to play a musical instrument or learning to swim. “YOU” are the most important driver of the end result that you hope to achieve. The others can only be facilitators. Only practice, and more practice, can get you there. There is one more catch to language. It is a medium of communication and requires the presence of someone else to complete the communication. After all, how do you know that you got your message across if no one responds to it? None of these existing solutions catered well to this part of the puzzle. Either you speak in front of a group/teacher for a few minutes in every class when given a turn, or you read out from a book, or you speak into the computer. These methods are poor substitutes when compared to talking at length with a real person everyday.

There are other concerns such as work schedules and commuting time that are far more important for working adults. Making time for learning English is no easy task but it’s all possible when you’re convinced that it will bring you confidence and better career prospects. (Or so I thought!)

Understanding the Audience
Armed with inspiration and the above gut-feel about the solution, I started conducting experiments to understand a fraction of this audience (online fraction) and observe their reaction to different ideas. These experiments were not a solution to their problem. These were just probes to observe behavior, and help me understand how to design a solution.

Experiment 1. A Facebook group formed with 2000+ people who responded to the “Help me write great English” campaign.  The group allows people to seek English help from other members and group owners regularly posts email writing tips and common English mistakes.  The enthusiasm to join the group and follow every update was huge.  However, very few people would come out and ask for help when writing something, and many would not openly answer quizzes posted on the group. When offered a paid course, or a paid service, or a private forum, they would hesitate to sign up.

Experiment 2. An online chat solution for the search-based audience, offering  live private (person to person) chat with English instructors.  Many showed interest and were able to solve their immediate concerns but a path towards fluency was hard to conceive. Most people showed up asking generic questions –  ”how i improv my English” or “plz help me with English” or “i wnt to spk English from telugu”. SMS lingo was commonly used and in many cases I realized that they did not know the original spelling of the word.  Very few came with a specific question – for example, one person asked “how do i welcome members of my online group on email”.  She was struggling with sentence formation in a particular context.

Experiment 3. A course for a specific area within English – for example, Business Email Writing.  The audience I tested was very skeptical on whether the course would achieve the desired result for their case. There was a free trial English quiz that many chose not to answer. We thought they wanted a physical classroom course. However, some did not believe that English courses offered around the corner would work for them either. The feedback I received was that the content can be bookish, the teacher has a local accent and often switches to the local language, the fellow classmates are varied, and there are severe time constraints.

Experiment 4: Answers (Q&A) portal for English improvement. One can ask any question – correct a sentence, “help me write it”, etc. Experts and other users can answer. Similar to Yahoo answers but restricted just for English help. I found that existing posts got lot of views but new users did not post fresh questions. Same conclusions as the Facebook group experiment.

In all above experiments, maximum users came from North India. Delhi recorded the highest share among users. I further concluded that both the variance between users and their skepticism are very high. Moreover, the articulation of customer need is a concept he can feel but cannot identify how to get there; imagine this feeling: “I want to speak English like she does.”

An Initial Service Offering: A Paid Tutoring Service
We offered private English Practice classes over the mobile-phone/Skype with a dedicated tutor who is fluent in English. The tutor is the key component that adapts the class to the needs of the student and focuses on correcting the mistakes of the student through practice conversations, exercises, role-plays, etc. We offered classes for common applications such as – job seekers, job interviews, professional English at work, everyday English. Free trial classes were provided to help familiarize new users with the teacher and the service.

Benefits:

  • Customized and personalized as per student’s background and needs
  • Flexible schedule, take classes as often as you need, and from anywhere
  • Pay for the teacher’s time and pay for more classes if you need more practice
  • Maximum time for student to speak, real practice with real conversations adapted to daily life/profile of the student
  • Retain privacy of student, he can learn without disclosing 
  • Interactive, friendly format, no bookish grammar classes

Customer Response
Enthusiastic to register for free trial classes: Online customers coming in through Google search queries related to “improving spoken english” signed up by filling a detailed form that helped us understand their needs. The signup form allowed them to tell us about their profile, their mother tongue, when they would like to take classes, and answer some English quiz questions to understand their grasp of English.  We tested the behavior of the consumer with over 300 completed signups from different parts of India.

After signup, customers would receive a confirmation email and sms. They would also receive a call to explain the service, and would be given an opportunity to take a trial class with a tutor, over the phone.

Observations:

  • Almost all users filled in the form accurately i.e. with correct mobile number and personal details. They enjoyed doing the online quiz even though we did not provide the answers. 
  • Only 5-10 % of users in this segment regularly check email, in most cases, they had not seen the confirmation email and were not expecting a call from us. They usually work in jobs with fixed timings and rarely answer calls in office hours. On weekends they were more responsive.
  • When we called them, 70-80% of them presented a very different picture. The inertia to join and  invest in this skill, and a lot of wishful thinking emerged.
  • Some denied that they had signed-up, many said they have no time take classes, and had just signed up casually; many were very shy to speak in English over the phone and did not take the free trial class. We switched to using the local language for the initial call. After talking to the teacher, they realized that this class format required them to be interactive, and shed their inhibitions. They felt a classroom based passive approach may be better but had too much inertia to actually join even that format. They knew English would help them in their careers but the actual process of learning and practicing is something they did not want to undertake. Even taking a “free” trial class for 30 minutes is something they avoided, as it needed them to take that step and interact with the tutor.
  • Some honest ones admitted that they have been postponing this investment in themselves for months and did not know when they would actually do it.
  • The ones who seriously considered the service were skeptical about the pricing and duration. They wanted to pay less than group classes, and still have a private teacher i.e. Rs. 100 per class instead of Rs. 200 per class that we had charged. This would be uneconomical and prevent us from hiring top-class tutors especially those who are fluent at English. Some of them did not have a payment option, other than a SBI bank account.
  • A few were skeptical if the “teach over phone” method would work and yet unwilling to invest time to try it.
  • Surprisingly, they did not ask for more free classes which I what I would expect from someone who is eager to learn and improve.
  • 90% of them said they loved the teachers and were impressed with the English that was spoken to them. They aspired to have such a fluent conversation and definitely felt the teachers were well versed with the language. They were also happy that we called them promptly and had taken the time to take their feedback on the service even if they were not serious about taking classes.

Paid customers: Despite seeing so many drop-outs at the stage where one has to actually take a class (free/paid), we did have a small set of customers who paid for the classes. Interestingly, these customers were very different from the dropouts.

  • Almost all of them immediately understood the value of the service, they called the number on the website and did not waste time filling the signup form.
  • None of them took a proper free trial class, they just paid for the whole month after taking to the tutor for 10 minutes and understanding the service benefits.
  • They did not argue on the price or duration of class (30 minutes), paid upfront for a month of classes. Most of them wanted to renew for several months after taking a week of classes.
  • None of them referred someone else to the service even though the incentive was 2 more classes. They had not disclosed to others that they were taking the class and were not comfortable doing so. We realized that ‘Word of Mouth’ which was crucial for future marketing was not going to happen easily in this market.
  • Each of them had a personally compelling reason to join, one that prompted them to overcome inertia, shyness, laziness and other concerns that delayed the others who postponed the decision by weeks or months. The profiles were varied – job seeker, businessman who wants to improve social standing, IT professional who has been chided by his girlfriend for poor English, a village shopkeeper who wanted to teach English to young kids in the village.
  • The benefits offered such as privacy, flexibility, fluency, personal teaching, customized class content were all in tune with their needs. They had their own self-metric and were looking to improve in their own eyes first. They did not need us to cajole them into doing it.

We conducted about 2000 minutes of paid classes during the experiment.  We did not renew the classes because I was not convinced that this offering was actually working for the larger India that I had originally wanted to impact, especially considering the large segment of customers who did not opt in due to their “achi english ke bina kaam chal hi raha hai” attitude. I wanted to understand how to break this model of thinking where they think fluency is optional, and target a much wider demographic.

Conclusions: 

The creation of a real deadline or a compelling factor was super necessary. That’s probably why TutorVista, Educomp and all other tutoring services focus on standard exams and teach those who are aiming for academic success. Many of these tutoring services had tried and later discontinued offering English classes for a wider adult/working professional demographic.

The missing “Nudge”
I recently discovered the scientific explanation for the above – research in psychology refers to this as a “time inconsistency” phenomenon, one that explains why people don’t keep New Year resolutions or exercise schedules. Human beings think differently about the present vs. about the future. In the present we are impulsive, and postpone small “costs” or small “efforts” i.e. spend 30 minutes improving English today. To get people to change this default behavior requires, the careful design of a “nudge”, something that makes you do it today. Offering a free class did not work as a nudge because investment of time/interaction was still required from the student’s side.

The missing “Delight” factor!
Consumer brands are built over the crucial foundation of “customer delight”. In the user’s initial interactions with the service or brand, the user must experience some form of delight. That creates the virtuous cycle of growth.  You may be able to attract thousands of customers but converting them requires that extra delight factor. If you think carefully, you will notice that this delight factor is missing from most education/language offerings/institutes. Here, the job/degree/exam is the end goal and society makes people want those degrees and those exams so consumers automatically sign up. In the absence of societal norms and pressure, how many people really learn or improve? In India, that number is even lower being a developing nation. The customer cannot learn on day one, and unless he puts in time to try more classes he won’t experience much. Language being a subjective skill makes it harder for the marketer to fix on a common delight factor. In the world of e-commerce where instant gratification drives online sales, how will language products compete?

The goal was to offer comfort in English to all who need it, and not become a small marginal service to a selected group of people. The criteria on which I was judging the solution was “potential to impact India”. Unless this criteria was satisfied, I knew I had to keep looking for alternative paths even if they meant taking the non-profit route. I’m still looking and will update this post with new insights and data. Meanwhile, if you happen to design a “nudge” that might work, do write to me!


If you are specifically interested in this project, and would like to explore it further or listen to sample classes we conducted, do get in touch with me.

References:

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