Internet entrepreneurs have been trying to “fix” education for decades, but relatively little has changed so far. The norm is still that one teacher is expected to cater her or his lesson plan to a roomful of students, each of whom may have different needs and levels of understanding.
For the right price, though, there are better options, Gerson Lehrman Group President and CEO Alexander Saint-Amand said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. His company’s professional clientele pay to be tutored by experts from a wide range of subjects, in the form of one-on-one conversations.
“You could call what we do consulting, but it isn’t, really,” Saint-Amand said. “We’ve done millions of projects. Our members have answered almost 100 million questions on our various sites. But the primary experience is a one-to-one phone call or meeting.”
GLG says it offers “millions of classes” and has paid out about $1 billion to its teachers over the past 20 years. But it doesn’t keep those teachers on the payroll indefinitely — rather, it has them on call and pays them when their insights are in demand. Saint-Amand likens the business to “Uber meets Harvard” because the experts are often academics at top universities or former business executives.
“We’ll recruit a former Fortune 500 CEO and they’ll ask us, ‘What do you think I have to teach?’” he said. “They have a lot to teach about being a CEO, or pharma, or interacting with the White House, or managing corporate culture, or whatever the subject is, but they don’t really know what their real thing is that would be valuable, that they’re the best at teaching.”
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On the new podcast, Saint-Amand explained what makes GLG different from other education-minded companies and products. He said that the company’s success can be traced to two differentiating factors; the first is that it is charging students for the conversation with an expert, not an answer.
“The idea has a long intellectual history in the Valley: ‘What about all that knowledge that’s in people’s heads? How can you get it out?’” Saint-Amand said. “You apply ‘Uber’ to that idea and it’s just, ‘Well, you connect everyone.’ But learning doesn’t work like that.”
“When it really comes time to start figuring what you want to do, you need perspective from people in the space,” he added. “How would your idea work in that market? What if you did this? What if you did that? It’s the development of perspective, the development of wisdom.”
The other thing setting GLG apart from broader, more consumer-minded products such as Quora, Yahoo Answers or LinkedIn-owned Lynda.com is that the company screens both teachers and students, which Saint-Amand compared to a college’s admissions process.
“The reason why it’s not a consumer idea yet is because you have to qualify the students,” he said. “The problem with Yahoo Answers is all sorts of people are asking random questions and are they worth teaching?”
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