Tom Rose worked as a high-priced tutor, making $400 a session, while completing his MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Along the way he had a revelation: 80% of the work he did could have been done better by a machine.
Rose, who studied entrepreneurship at MIT, saw an opportunity. He would computerize the 80% that could be computerized, so tutors and students could focus on the remaining 20%. And at the same time, he would make tutoring cheaper for students.
With classmate Miro Kazakoff, Rose built a software program that could teach students the things they needed to learn on their own time, while also creating data that coaches and tutors could access to make their interactions more efficient.
“We believe in the power of human motivation,” Rose tells Poets&Quants. “Lots of people believe in the value of it. But the challenge of working with humans is that they’re very expensive.
“So what we’re working on is technology that allows us to deliver high-value interactions with less human time. We want to cut out all the stuff that’s low-value.”
100,000 STUDENTS HAVE USE THEIR SOFTWARE
When they graduated in 2011, Rose and Kazakoff launched Testive, an online ACT/SAT prep company. Today, more than 100,000 students have used Testive software.
Four thousand practice problems are free to students on Testive’s website, and an algorithm the founders built at MIT streamlines the studying process to help students learn faster.
“When you set out to learn something, one of the biggest challenges is knowing where to spend your time. It’s very easy to spend your time on things that don’t help,” Rose says. “So something we’re able to do is mine the data that comes from student performance to learn where they should spend their time to generate the most benefit.”
Though the practice problems are free, the company makes money by selling additional learning tools and setting up weekly video-call meetings for students and Testive coaches.
“When you prepare for the SAT or ACT, it takes about 100 hours to reach your potential,” Rose says. “It’s really hard for students to put 100 hours into something, so the job of the coach is to help them stick with it.”
HIGH-VALUE HUMAN INTERACTION
There are a number of edtech startups now, but what sets Testive apart, Rose says, is its focus on the power of human motivation. “One of the things I believe is a mistake with a lot of edtech startups is that they fail to address what keeps people sticking with a task. At most, attrition is really high, like 90%. At Testive, it’s 5%,” he says.
Testive’s coaches are the reason students keep at it, Rose says. At the moment, the company has 30 human coaches, most of whom work part-time — about 10 hours a week. But they’re able to work with around 20 students at a time because they don’t spend time on anything a student can do alone.
“If you imagine that we leave where we are, and try to find the closest tutor to us, that person is probably sitting next to a student and reviewing practice questions,” Rose says. “They’re helping the student figure out what they did wrong, and that’s a useful thing in general. But it’s a bad use of human time.”
Instead, Rose says, it’s a much more effective use of time to give students the resources to figure things like this out themselves, so that when they meet with a coach they can answer questions like, “What is your goal? What is your plan for how much work you’re going to do next week? How did it go last week? Did you have any problems, and can we brainstorm ways to change your process so you don’t have these problems again?”
A really bad use of time, he says, is to have coaches asking students things like, “Did you do your homework?”