Software a treasure trove for Remote Tutoring

One Yale alum’s new software program, TutorTrove, is making waves in the tutoring world.

The scene is nothing new — a high school student looks to her tutor to explain a seemingly impossible homework problem. The tutor then writes out a step-by-step explanation, decoding the jumble of words and numbers. But in this scenario the student is working from the couch in her sister’s Maine apartment, and the tutor is hundreds of miles away in his office in Westport, CT.

The product that made this scenario a reality earned the distinction of “Most Promising Technology Product or Service of 2010” in the Connecticut Technology Council’s Innovation Pipeline Awards on Sept. 30. TutorTrove, a software program developed by Eli Luberoff ’09, brings tutoring online by allowing tutors to remotely collaborate with their students in real time. While the software has never been officially marketed, two of its current users of the program said they believe the technology could have far-reaching implications for tutoring in the technological era.

“With TutorTrove, we can help students who wouldn’t be able to get help where they are,” said Trey Billings, co-founder and operator of Freudigman & Billings LLC, one of the 24 tutoring firms nationwide who use the software. TutorTrove has over 7,000 users so far, including companies and individuals.

Tutors have access to electronic “whiteboards” when they use the program where they are able to write equations and solve problems that their students can immediately see and respond to, Luberoff said. Additionally, the software has a built in chat-room feature which allows the tutors to communicate directly with the students. This means that students and tutors no longer need to be in the same room — or even the same state, Luberoff said.

Both Billings and Matthew Nemerson, president of the Connecticut Technology Council, believe that Luberoff’s TutorTrove has implications far beyond practical or financial gains for the tutoring firms. Billings said that TutorTrove offers exciting prospects for improving educational opportunities nationwide.

“This is not trivial,” Nemerson said. “This could change the way people get tutored, and really help fix all sorts of educational problems.”

Luberoff came up with the idea for TutorTrove long before he began writing any code for the software. When he was in high school, he said, he often helped his friends with homework, and wished there were an easier way to transmit information remotely than over the phone. This interest in tutoring continued during his time at Yale, where Luberoff worked at Freudigman and Billings for two years.

Although he said he recognized the need for improved software to facilitate the tutoring process, Luberoff originally wanted to design the product for personal, not commercial use.

Luberoff, an intensive mathematics and physics double major, took three semesters off from Yale during the development phase of the software to work with a computer scientist collaborator at the University of Indiana. The product — finalized in Jan. 2010 — can be run on any type of computer without any downloads, provided that the machine is able to run flash videos.

Billings said he and Kim Freudigman, owners of Freudigman & Billings, were two of the earliest financial stakeholders in the business.

The now award–winning technology has never been widely marketed, Luberoff said. Instead, its popularity has grown through word of mouth, he said, particularly at trade shows or with clients in tutoring firms.

“We’ll show it to someone, and they’ll show it to their friends,” Luberoff said. “And then, there is this chain of people who get really excited about it.”

Nemerson said he found the software to exactly fit the criteria the Council looks for in upcoming technologies. He said that TutorTrove is a complete system that solves a pressing problem in both an elegant way and in a financially sustainable way.

Since his graduation from Yale in 2009, Luberoff has been working on the business model and technology for TutorTrove full-time. Earlier this year, he relocated to the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute on York Street to continue the work.

The current business model for the software requires the tutoring firms to pay a certain set fee for access to the technology, varying based on the individual needs of firms, said Billings. Each firm, in turn, sets the cost for use of the software with its clients.

“Online tutoring is just pure additional revenue,” Billings said, “so firms are than happy to pay the additional cost of the subscription.”

In addition to TutorTrove, Yale-affiliated start-ups won four of the eight awards given at the 2010 Innovation Pipeline awards, which evaluated 115 New England companies.

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