This is not an announcement article. It’s more of an article to get your feedback and see where we go from here with our Skype private tutor service.
A year ago, I announced that we were working on a personal tutoring service for learning to speak Irish Gaelic.
For our Bitesize Irish Gaelic clan members who make use of our online program to learn Irish, it would be a whole step forward to be also able to meet up with a tutor to get real-time feedback.
It’s hard to learn without practising conversation, right? It’s also difficult to know how your pronunciation is without speaking with a native speaker in real time.
So far, the service has proven more complicated than I’ve been able to pull together. So I thought I’d give you a bit of history behind the idea, and let’s see where we go from here.
Our story so far with Bitesize Irish Gaelic Live
Around 2012, I was awarded a grant to participate in a startup program here in Limerick, Ireland. I quit my research job at the local university, and took this 6-month position. The aim to to see how we could grow Bitesize Irish Gaelic. (I’ve since gone back to work full time, and work on Bitesize Irish Gaelic part-time.)
That program pushed me to learn more about our audience. Who are you? What are your objectives, dreams, and fears? I emailed a question “What’s your biggest fear about learning Irish?”. Wow, what a response. More than 100 of you emailed personally back with your feedback. One of the biggest challenges was not being able to practice speaking the Irish language with anybody around you.
That sounded like a real problem (and it is still a real problem).
We worked on the idea, and considered finding tutors who would meet learners over Skype and teach them to speak some Irish.
In August 2013, I announced that we were working on Bitesize Irish Gaelic Live.
We collected email addresses of interested people. About 100 people signed up to hear more about the service as it progressed. I also mentioned the service on our podcast as we worked through the private phases.
A large piece of the puzzle was to find kind, understanding teachers who were happy to take part in the service. This took me a long time to figure out, as I didn’t know anybody who would be available. I created an online registration form for tutors.
A good source of registrations of interested potential tutors turned out to be graduates from the National University of Ireland Maynooth, which has a qualification program for teaching Irish to adults.
I interviewed a number of tutors over Skype. Around October 2013, I arranged for two tutors to meet two selected customers of Bitesize Irish Gaelic Live. My apologies if my recollection is out of order with how it actually turned out below.
Pat in Florida was our first customer. He was matched up with the tutor Aonghus. Aonghus was a native speaker of the Aran Islands, living for a long time on the mainland in Galway, Ireland. I believe they had five video Skype lessons together, and we all learned a lot about the service during those calls.
Our second customer was Renee, and her daughter, in Las Vegas. Renee was scheduled to meet with the second tutor, a native Irish speaker from Achill Island. It was time for the first call to go ahead, and the tutor never showed up. I rang the tutor, and her friend answered saying it was the wrong number. That was quite annoying, but she obviously was no longer interested. (Come to think of it, it could have been Pat who has this missed call. The details are escaping me, although I don’t want to offend either Pat nor Renee!)
Aonghus took on the role of also meeting Renee since were were down to one tutor.
The Live service was getting off the ground. After Christmas 2013, Aonghus got more work from his company, and decided to no longer participate in our service. He’s obviously successful in his corporate career. He was first planning on retiring, but was probably offered enough money to keep going 🙂 It therefore wasn’t worth his time to show up for tutor sessions late in the evening after work.
That was the first phase of the Live tutor sessions, and I contacted more active clan members of Bitesize Irish Gaelic to see if they wanted to participate.
For the second phase of Bitesize Irish Gaelic Live, I wanted to learn more about how to run the service. Scheduling was a headache. After going through the steps of working out a time that suited both the tutor and the learner, there were both times when a tutor didn’t show up and a learner didn’t show up. What do you do when someone doesn’t show up? Do you cover their cost of the next session? Do you fire a tutor immediately for one or two slip-ups? With session where one person doesn’t show up, we’ve essentially wasted the time of the other person who did bother showing up.
For phase two, four more learners agreed to pay for lessons in January 2014. In the meantime, I was busy trying to find a new tutor. Time rolled on, and it was several months later when they eventually got matched to new tutors. Gearóid was one tutor for this phase who was excellent, but didn’t want to continue for personal reasons. Grace, also here in Limerick, was an excellent teacher, and wanted to continue. I may be forgetting right now about another tutor who was involved.
These 20 sessions (five sessions for each of the four learners) went ahead. Again, scheduling was a big problem. The learners were very kind to us though, and gave excellent feedback as to what would help them in learning more Irish. This phase eventually finished in early summer 2014.
Along with scheduling, the issue of cost of the service has always been something we’ve been working out. It’s really expensive to (1) make a personal tutor available to you, (2) pay the tutor enough to make it worth their time to show up, and (3) still have enough left over to pay for all the coordination work and – let’s be completely open about it – profits.
Challenges that I’m not sure about
Along came summer 2014, and I was still stuck on four issues:
- How to schedule a recurring session between a tutor and a learner, when either could be in any time zone and with an unknown restriction to their time
- How to keep the supply of tutors filled, when there is always going to be a turnover between people starting and people finishing
- How to make the pricing work so that our customers could afford it, yet making it worthwhile for tutors
- What content to cover in a series of sessions that you pay for.
I lingered on those issues through this past summer, and it felt like too much to decide. To be honest, I had a bit of anxiety during the time about how to make it work, and why couldn’t I make it work.
As it happens, the first problem of scheduling may have a solution. During my trips this past summer to Milwaukee Irish Fest and Kansas City Irish Fest, my father told me about a scheduling system where you share your calendar and people can reserve time slots for meetings. There’s several of these online systems. By having each tutor enter their available time in the system, you could log in to see which tutor might match your available time.
The second problem of not having enough tutors could be addressed by posting more aggressively to current and past students of programs for learning to teach Irish to adults. To be honest, I didn’t follow up with every tutor who registered their interest with us, as I got stuck on the other challenges.
The third issue with pricing is a real one. We currently need to charge around $75/hour to make the service work out financially. This would cover e-commerce fees, tutor fees, and project manager fees. One approach is to make the personal tutor session more Bitesize in length. Then you pay $35 for 25 minutes with the tutor. That was the official length of our second phase of test tutor sessions.
I love the idea of keeping sessions short, as it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed and like you’re no longer learning. It’s core to our principal of learning in Bitesize portions.
Another way to make the sessions more affordable would be to have two learners meet one tutor. This makes it at least twice as hard to find a suitable time to meet. But if we can overcome the scheduling problem, then it’s possible.
The last open challenge is deciding whether to have open lessons where the tutor answers any questions that you the learner has, or whether to offer a more structured program of ten Bitesize sessions, for example.
The trouble with the structured lessons is that everyone is on a different level of learning. So one set of lessons might suit one person but not another person. That being said, if we can cover certain core topics around learning the language, the topics should be applicable for more than one single person.
Your chance to help shape our future
In conclusion, we’ve ran two private test phases during the past year. Both the learners and the tutors were very kind in finding ways of making it work.
That being said, it has seemed to be difficult to pull it all together to actually make it work, and a couple of open questions remain, particularly about what the tutors should cover during any particular private tutor session.
With all that said, what’s your impression of this potential service? Is it something that you will pay for? How would you suggest we provide a structured program of live personal lessons? Would you prefer to purchase a set of tutor sessions around a set menu of topics? Please leave a reply below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.