A Cambridge MBA alumnus has started a dotcom business that matches parents and students with private tutors online in a bid to leverage the power of one-on-one learning for future generations.Michael Birdsall, himself a private tutor, has taken an airline industry-style ‘no frills’ model for his venture – twosigmas.com– and cites real-life figures that show stunning improvements in student performance when they are tutored privately rather than in large groups.
The idea has so caught the imagination that 450 tutors have already signed up their services. Birdsall, an American living in the Cambridge UK technology cluster, is aiming for thousands of tutors and his major problem so far has been holding back the tide of overseas applications.
“We’ve had tutors from Italy and France sign up. While demand will inevitably take us into Europe and beyond we have to get the business established in the UK first,” he said.
Birdsall arrived in the UK via Maine and then Poland before landing in Cambridge and signing up for an MBA course at the university’s Judge Business School.
Twosigmas.com is effectively cutting out a lot of the frills common in the majority of tutoring agencies’ offerings, which brings down the cost of commissions; many agencies charge 30 per cent for their services, twosigmas.com takes a 10 per cent cut – which is clearly why so many tutors have signed up in the infancy of the venture.
The inspiration for Birdsall – as it has been for many educationalists – was a paper called ‘The Two Sigma Problem’ published by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom in 1984.
1984 wasn’t all about George Orwell and Big Brother: Bloom’s work inspired future generations of educationalists – as he emphatically proved the power of one-on-one tuition.
His paper described an experiment where a teacher was used to deliver classroom instruction and private tuition to two groups of students at the same academic level. Students receiving private tuition performed above 98 per cent of those taught in the classroom. In nerdy math terms, they performed two sigmas higher.
Birdsall said: “The difference in results of teaching 30 pupils together and then each one individually was staggering. That’s what we’re building on. We believe every single student is capable of achieving ‘two sigma’ results. Our mission is to give tutors, educators and parents the support they need to extend this opportunity to each and every student.
“If you suddenly found your child had a natural gift to play the piano, you’d almost certainly get them professional tuition. But when it comes to maths, English or other educational subjects talented pupils tend to just be happy to keep pace.
“Not every student learns at the same pace. Our approach through private tuition is to relax the time pressure and work to make the student 100 per cent proficient at the task in hand however long that takes – it may take some an hour, others two hours but the end objective never varies from the 100 per cent proficiency target.”
Twosigmas.com aims to recruit suitable students purely from Russell Group universities in the UK. That includes Cambridge and Oxford and top universities in all four countries in the UK, including Cardiff, Edinburgh and Queens in Belfast.
Cambridge technology entrepreneur Sherry Coutu, reading the runes in the future job market, recently urged parents to ensure their children learned coding.
Birdsall had a similar quandary at High School in the US – physics or the arts. Of course, everyone said to choose physics/engineering but the advances of technology and the need for designers in the world of cyberspace has provided another strand to the argument.
Twosigmas.com aims to arm more youngsters with specialisms and skills, whatever their talents and aptitudes, that will give them greater opportunities in ‘job market 2020’ and beyond.
• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Michael Birdsall