Startup Springboard bets mentors can improve online education success rates

Can human mentors boost online education success rates? Springboard hopes so. The bet is that mentors can compete with career and skill boot camps and give grad school the boot over time.

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Gautam Tambay: "If there is ROI in education, people will pay for it."

Springboard, a startup that aims to put a human twist on online education, has raised $1.7 million and has a few big name backers including LinkedIn co-founder Allen Blue. The bet: Online education success rates can improve with human mentors.

Online education holds a lot of promise as a way to democratize learning, go global and improve returns for students, who currently have to take on ridiculous levels of debt to complete degrees. The problem: Online education is missing its secret sauce. Dropout rates are high and students can struggle with a broadcast model of education.

Springboard has added industry mentors to the mix so there's a human component to project-based course material. These mentors can also serve as contacts in a job hunt. For now, Springboard is focusing on design and data science. Students pay $299 to $499 a month to take a self-paced course, which requires about 100 hours of work. Most working students take about three months to complete a course.

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Whether Springboard becomes a large company or a tuck-in acquisition remains to be seen, but the concept is worth noting. Learning isn't likely to be either online or in person, but some hybrid. These hybrid structures are worth pondering as skills will have to evolve quickly.

Investors in addition to Blue include John Katzman, founder of The Princeton Review and 2U, and a series of angel investors that include Kartik Hosanagar, a management professor at Wharton. Springboard has served more than 1,000 students in its first year.

We caught up with co-founder Gautam Tambay to talk education.

What's wrong with current online education offerings?

Most online education companies have focused on bringing great content online. That's limiting. Pointing to a video course online is like giving them a textbook and saying go learn it. Most people need human interaction to help them when they get stuck. Coursera is free and has great content, but content alone doesn't mean education. Education delivery is much larger than textbooks.

How many mentors do you have today? How many do you think you'll need to scale?

We have 100 mentors today after a year. We can get to 5,000 or 6,000 mentors in three years. Finding mentors hasn't been hard. There are a lot of professionals in industry who are interested in teaching. And the motivation isn't pay. They are compensated, but the main incentive is giving back. Professionals stay sharper when they teach people, and they want to see what the new generation is doing. Mentors are able to take 4 to 5 students and make a difference in their life.

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Do you plan to stick with technology and related subjects?

We're going to stay with UX and data science at the moment. Data science is a large vertical and we'll be offering more courses within data science. It's similar for design and there are a bunch more design courses. Once we launch a vertical, launching more courses becomes easier. In the long term we will expand into technology more and follow the skills gap.

Why now?

For our parents' generation, you'd go to college and grad school and have one career for 30 years. Millennials will switch jobs every two years and education hasn't adjusted to that. I don't think college will die because structurally it's required for many reasons. And employers are risk adverse. What goes away is grad school. Columbia. Wharton and Stanford won't, but not-so-great grad schools won't serve you well. That investment will break down into multiple $5,000 investments as and when people need it. This reality will go beyond technology.

How important is networking to this equation?

There are two elements. Students value being part of a network and student get to interview their mentors. If you thought data science was some mystical thing, you talk to your mentor and say 'they're human like me.' You realize you can be like this person.

Is the collaboration technology good enough now to make a real human connection?

A video call can be enough. It works. In person would be even better, but technology has evolved to a point where it works well. In future there could be virtual reality. Collaboration technology is so much better than what students have had access to.

Why have MOOCs stumbled?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) lack what makes school. The bundle you buy into includes content to human support and advisory services. There are also parties and the football team. That university bundle is overkill for someone moving into a new career. We're about what's the minimal viable bundle. What can you take out and still make a compelling offering? We'll never have a football field.

What's next for you and for profit education?

We'll stay in vocational fields. For-profit education fell into trap of taking federal funding and spending it on marketing. A better comparable to what we do is boot camps. General Assembly and the Flatiron School in NYC are comparisons. We're all essentially becoming a substitute for grad school and at $7,000 to $8,000 there's ROI in that experience. If there is ROI in education, people will pay for it.