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How InstaEDU Is Tapping the Online Education Market With $1.1 million in seed funding, a new startup is connecting students electronically with tutors from top universities.

By Brian Patrick Eha

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Earlier this year, Alison Johnston, 25, her brother, Dan, 22, and a friend, 25-year-old Joey Shurtleff, founded InstaEDU with the goal of making one-on-one education affordable and accessible to students everywhere. Previously, while Alison was working in marketing at Google and Dan was studying at Stanford, the siblings had started a private tutoring business, but quickly realized two big problems: the high cost of tutoring and its dependence on the physical presence of tutors for instruction.

Their latest startup, based in San Francisco, attempts to solve both. Through InstaEDU's platform, students can receive live instruction at any time from online tutors using options like video chat, text chat and document editing. And because tutors don't have to travel, the fees are lower. High school and college students can connect with tutors themselves, or their parents can schedule sessions through a parent account. The platform, the siblings say, replicates the personal interaction that distance learning has long been missing.

InstaEDU has signed up 1,200 tutors, many of them from top universities, and secured $1.1 million in seed funding from the Social+Capital Partnership. We spoke with Alison to find out how InstaEDU is taking part in a cultural shift toward online learning. An edited version of our conversation follows.

Related: When Customers Get Angry, This Startup Seeks to Help

Entrepreneur: How did InstaEDU start?
Johnston:
What we came to realize was how well the irregular schedules of college students can match up with the irregular schedules of learners in general. And we were already working with Stanford and Harvard and Columbia students as in-home tutors. We started thinking about how we could take this group of highly knowledgeable, experienced college-student tutors who had availability and match them up with students who needed help at any given time. And that's how InstaEDU was born.

Entrepreneur: What makes InstaEDU appealing to both students and tutors?
Johnston:
For students, it's the instant nature of getting over a roadblock in your homework or the test that you're studying for. So if you're a student, you might come to our site and search for chemistry. A minute later you're already in a live tutoring session getting the help you need.

On the tutor side, it's an awesome part-time job. We have an easy time recruiting tutors out of top universities. They're making $20 an hour on their schedule [and are paid through our platform]. All of them have connected either Facebook chat or Gmail chat, which allows us to show when they are online and available. And if they're busy when a student is requesting a session, they can always pass.

Entrepreneur: How do you see InstaEDU as fitting into a larger shift in how people receive education?
Johnston:
There has been an explosion in ed-tech. There's a true shift going on where more and more people are learning online. And that's great for us. [We can] complement online courses [like Coursera and Udacity] and be the company that scales relationships in education.

One of the drawbacks of the giant online courses from Coursera and Eudacity and edX is that they lack a personal nature. You can't raise your hand; you can't poke your neighbor [to ask a question]. That personal interaction has been proven to be very important in education.

InstaEDU is in a really unique position where we can complement any of those online learning platforms. You could watch an MIT physics lecture online from anywhere in the world, run into something that you don't quite understand, and you could pause the lecture and go discuss that with an MIT physics major. We're not quite that granular yet, but we're moving in that direction.

Entrepreneur: What are some challenges you've faced?
Johnston:
We're constantly struggling with changing people's perception of tutoring. People tend to have this notion that tutoring is for rich kids or for dumb kids, but that's not the case. Every student has some things that they struggle with. Getting that message across, that it's about everybody needing to talk through academic concepts at one time or another, has been slower than expected. But when it comes down to it, and someone needs the help, they see the value in it.

Entrepreneur: Where do you want to go next with the company?
Johnston:
We're looking into how we can plug into all these big education platforms, and I think that's the next step, being more closely tied to them. It's not something that's going to happen overnight, but it's something that we're working with our people on and it's something that we'll be watching very closely.

Related: A Buzzworthy Startup Rethinks the Political Process

Brian Patrick Eha is a freelance journalist and former assistant editor at Entrepreneur.com. He is writing a book about the global phenomenon of Bitcoin for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It will be published in 2015.

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