A Tutor Cloud in a MOOC World – InstaEDU raises $4 million


Back in March 2011 I wrote about the concept of a 24/7 teacher cloud that would allow learners to take instant lessons with educators at any time of the day. The obvious issue with such a service is, needless to say, scale as you need to make sure that enough teachers are actually connected at any given time.

InstaEDU seems to have cracked that task in a couple of verticals and therefore raised $4 million Series A led by Battery Ventures with participation of The Social+Capital Partnership who led InstaEDU’s $1.1 million Seed Round.

From the outside it seems that InstaEDU is actually building its startup against the stream. In times where the focus is set on self directed learning and learning sprints, InstaEDU grows 50% month over month by offering virtual 1:1 tutoring with an average session length of one hour.

Back in 2012 InstaEDU sold its offline branch Cardinal Scholars to Course Hero, another startup in the education space. The growth InstaEDU has shown since doubling down on virtual tutoring seems to confirm that decision.

Like every online teaching marketplace since the days of eduFire or WizIQ, InstaEDU features a full blown virtual classroom with interactive whiteboard and what have you. But to me the killer feature of InstaEDU is the estimated waiting time. According to the site, students have to wait less than 30 seconds on average to be connected to one of the 3000+ tutors which is really impressive.

I just wrote briefly about Hoot.Me which followed a similar approach by connecting learners and tutors via Facebook, turning the social network into study mode. The team just joined Civitas Learning with the aim to develop new features that help to decrease dropout rates based on data analysis. So flesh and blood tutors still have a niche in a world that moves towards adaptive learning.

The additional funding is planned to be used for a nonprofit branch, mobile applications and global expansion.

I had the chance to ask Alison Johnston Rue, CEO and co-founder of InstaEDU some questions which you find below.

KW: With education currently going towards more asynchronous, self paced learning options like MOOCs, InstaEDU seems to go against the trend. Yet you managed to grow month over month. What is the place of 1:1 tutoring in online education?

AJR: With MOOCs, academic content is easily scaled from one professor to thousands of students at once — which is pretty phenomenal. However, if you’ve been following the news about MOOCs, the numbers aren’t always encouraging. Most courses only have a 10 percent completion rate and San Jose State recently suspended a pilot program with Udacity after less than half of the students participating in the program passed the final.

So what does this all have to do with InstaEDU? We believe that scaling one-on-one academic support is just as important as scaling the one-to-one-thousand lecture hall experience. The conversations you have with your TA, study sessions you have in the library and late night homework help from roommates about the next day’s problem set are all critical to the learning process. Online learning platforms will need to replicate these relationships in order to be successful.

KW: Your tutors earn $20/h. Can you give us an idea of what the top tutors on InstaEDU earn per month?

AJR: The average active tutor on InstaEDU makes $70/week. And some of our more active tutors are making hundreds — even thousands — of dollars every month.

KW: In the press release you mention global expansion. What are your first target markets and do you think the same model is going to work in Europe or Asia? How are you going to make sure that students outside the US have the same choice and low waiting time?

AJR: We’ve already started recruiting tutors from top schools in Singapore, the UK, and Australia – places where English is the first language. This helps us meet our promise of having tutors available 24/7, and we also have some very active students in those areas. Part of this funding will allow us to more aggressively expand in those countries and a few others. Our site isn’t yet localized, so at this time we’re primarily focused on English-speaking countries.

KW: Your most popular subjects are computer science, statistics and calculus. We see a similar trend at learning platforms like Udemy on which courses around tech subjects are the most popular. Do you think that learners in those subject matters are more tech-affine than those who study liberal arts?

AJR: While computer science majors are probably more tech-savvy than, say, English majors as a group, the same STEM focus exists in offline tutoring, so I don’t see that as the primary driver. In most cases, it’s just more obvious when you need a hand with math or science. If you have a calculus assignment that you don’t understand, often you can’t even get started. In contrast, students who don’t really understand an English assignment can often muddle their way through it, without really knowing how good (or bad) their work is. In short, any subject in which a student has to seek out a “right” answer is one where it’s going to be more obvious that extra help is needed.

Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at

  • John Smith

    Just terrible for tutors who work for them. I worked as a tutor for them and can say that they treat their tutors like trash and underpay them (they pay $20/hr while most senior tutors can make $40-50/hr, especially if they live in high-income areas), but worst of all they only care about your tutor ratings and don’t give a shit about the true quality of tutoring you provide, and while fire tutors if they receive more than about 4 or 5 “unhelpful” ratings on their records and without giving tutors a chance to work out th e reason for negative feedback with their students (and have it removed, like can be done on eBay, since most of the time the bad feedback is probably due to a misunderstanding and not a lack of knowledge from the tutor) or with their management people (once they fire you they’ll just ignore all your e-mails). This is problematic since most students on InstaEdu just want tutors to give them the answers or do their homework, and aren’t interested in tutors contributing to their genuine learning. Tutors who do the latter are more likely receive the “unhelpful” ratings since they didn’t provide the answers to the students right away. Their pay-by-the-minute model is also not conducive to learning or tutoring since it forces the student to rush the tutor for the answers while giving tutors the incentive to prolong a session just so they can make a few extra bucks. They also don’t provide bonus incentives to their tutors like many competitors do, yet still expect them to have maintain near perfect ratings from their students, don’t compensate more senior tutors (so they end up with mostly shitty quality undergrads looking to make a quick buck rather the more serious and experienced graduate or professional students or students with advanced degrees that could be doing the tutoring instead) They’d be much better off just sticking to a traditional pay-by-the-hour approach and having a tiered pay system for their tutors. Otherwise I can see them going out of business in a fairly short amount of time.

    Bottom line, stay away from them whether you are potential tutor or student.