Note: This post was written before I knew there was a 1 on 1 option. Turns out the button to request tutoring only shows up when you’re logged in as a student instead of a tutor. I’m quite confused as to why that matters since you can join classes fine as a tutor but that’s a fault in the UI not the site itself. Be sure to check out the comments for more info. Also, why can’t I find a list of certain types of classes? You can mess with the url and add “/classes/language” such as http://edufire.com/classes/mandarin to find all classes of that language but I can’t see a link to do this anywhere!
The title says it all. This viewpoint is completely biased and objectivity is impossible from my position as a Japanese tutor. Let me make that clear before I even start.
I decided to try an eduFire Japanese class as a student for mainly three reasons.
1. It was free.
2. I’m interested in seeing other styles of tutoring and keen on improving my own.
3. I’m always happy for any opportunity to keep up my Japanese.
Thoughts about the service
So I picked what looked to be the most advanced class out there, which as it turns out was an intermediate class. That brings me to the first thing that has me puzzled about eduFire. Are the classes free or no?
Currently, every Japanese class is listed as “Free” yet the tutors themselves list prices on their lessons. I’m assuming some tutors are offering free classes as a way to promote their class but every tutor? I guess it’s a good thing that all the tutors are so generous (more generous than me for sure).
That leaves me with the next question which is kind of made moot by the previous one but if you teach let’s say a $25 class and you somehow manage to attract 100 students, do you get paid $2500 x 0.85=$2125? Or even just 20 students, do you make 25 x 20 x 0.85= $425 for just one class? That’s quite a racket!
Even with a modest 5 students, you make $106.25 dollar for an hour, that’s like a high paid consultant. Why is it such a awesome deal for tutors (and incidentally the site who gets a 15% cut)? Because in most cases, the students are getting hoodwinked, that’s why. There are two aspects of language teaching which are often mixed together: presenting new information and practicing the new information.
The first aspect is non-interactive and is more of a lecture style presentation. This means I can create a YouTube video with the static information and charge every student to watch it. Maybe I can respond to questions via email. This is essentially what you are getting with if you join an “interactive” class with let’s say 50 other students. You can have a 100 or even 1,000 students, it scales well but it’s not something you’d want to pay for each time.
The second aspect is truly interactive and doesn’t scale at all. Conversation practice means you are either speaking or listening. Typically, beginner students will speaker less since the teacher has to correct and explain more. Ideally, you want to approach an even split as the student becomes more advanced. Let’s say for example, at an intermediate level, you speak for 30% of the time. For a private lesson, 70% of it is spent in listening to a Japanese speaker or getting corrections, all of which are to your benefit adding up to 100% goodness. For a two person lesson, the 30% listening time is split in two and you only get 15%. And the listening is of lesser value since half of it doesn’t apply to you. Let’s say you still get half of good general listening practice but waste a quarter of corrections and pointers that apply specifically to the other person. Now your goodness is down to 67.5%. You should be entitled to a 32.5% discount. In a standard regular 20 person class, you get a mere 6.25% speaking, 25% pure listening, and 3.125% specific pointers and corrections. That’s a mere 34.375% and that’s with a generous pure listening calculation! Personally, I think if you take a $20 class with 19 other people, you should be charged $1. After all, the teacher still makes the same $20 regardless, right?
But in the end, since all the classes seem to be free at the moment, I’m complaining about a completely hypothetical situation. I’m still confused as to why all the classes are free though and wonder how long that will last.
Thoughts on the lesson
I won’t say which but the class I took was absolutely horrible. I actually felt stupid and was almost convinced that I couldn’t speak Japanese at the end! The worst part of all this is that the class itself was actually quite normal. I had just forgotten how horrible regular Japanese classes were.
Basically, you’re like a talking robot that must spit out the correct answer when your button is pressed. The lesson was so formally structured that all you had to do was spit back the question with the answer filled in. There was no freedom or any form of conversation whatsoever. My hopes of getting some conversation practice were promptly crushed. The 自己紹介 was the only free portion of the whole thing and the tutor didn’t even ask any follow up questions or anything for that matter! It essentially became a monologue that I could type up and just read out loud. Also, for any corrections, there were no explanations on why it was wrong or expansion on similar examples.
When it’s your turn to talk and you’re thinking about what the teacher wants you to say, it means you’re a robot. It was Japanese class déjà vu. Seriously, I’m at the point where I’ve started thinking that the more formal teaching experience you get, the worse teacher you become. The lesson was free but it still cost me an hour of my increasingly dwindling free time. I’d like to try another class from another tutor but I’m afraid to waste any more time.
Maybe it’s just not my style or I’m biased and misinformed because the comments on the tutor were all stellar and full of praise. If any students of mine are reading this, please feel free to rip on my lessons and tell me where I’m going wrong here.
Thoughts on improvements
Now, the site obviously has nothing to do with how well an individual tutor or the classes are but I think there are certain things that can be done to improve the situation. After all, the site is only as good as its tutors. I think they’re missing out on the whole web 2.0 social network thing with their philosophy of classes. Classes just don’t work very well for learning languages but private tutoring is expensive and good teachers are hard to find. They should work on lowering the barrier of entry for tutors so that students can get more and more personal attention. The first most brain-dead barrier to entry is that the site itself is not localized. If you want more native Japanese tutors, maybe it might help to be able to use the site in Japanese? Duh. The second barrier to entry is that every tutor has to start from scratch with their own teaching material. There’s no way to put up teaching material on the site much less sharing and rating it amongst other tutors. That seems to me like a huge waste of effort. And how about some basic training or starter guides for potential tutors? Finally, the whole class philosophy makes tracking individual students very difficult. Personally, I keep notes of every private lesson not just for the students to review but for myself to help me remember what we’ve done so far and what remains to be done. After a few lessons, I have a pretty good idea of each student’s strong points and more importantly the stuff that needs to be worked on. Now obviously, I don’t scale very well but imagine what you can do with an whole army of qualified tutors with good teaching materials.
Right now, all the site does is help you find students, arrange a time, process payment, and perhaps pay a license fee for the flash application from Adobe, which has free alternatives anyway. I think it’s time to get a bit more ambitious and start thinking about how to become a game-changer for traditional language education.
Update: It looks like they might already be on the case.