What the demise of Google Helpouts means for education

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Apr 8, 2015

This is the third post in the #WhoYouKnow blog series on the overlap of social capital, EdTech, and innovation.

WhoYouKnowA few months ago, Google Helpouts—a barely two-year-old effort to connect users to on-demand experts via video chat—folded. Google posted a relatively quiet post mortem, which explained that “the Helpouts community includes some engaged and loyal contributors, but unfortunately, it hasn’t grown at the pace we had expected.” A longer analysis in TechCrunch speculated that regulatory barriers, a long history of Google’s struggle to capture users’ questions on its platform, and competition from tools like YouTube tutorial videos, contributed to the decision to shut it down.

I was a bit deflated when the news of Helpouts’ failure hit. In light of my current research on the slim market of network-expanding EdTech tools, Helpouts was a key enterprise-level experiment in connecting people to live experts with whom they might otherwise never have come in contact. As such, I viewed it as an early attempt at creating a viable business model for an online marketplace of experts, mentors, and helpers. Imagine, I thought, what such a marketplace could mean for schools: at the press of a button, students could speak to a live mentor or adult who could lend expertise, dispense advice, or give feedback based on students’ needs and interests. Such a marketplace could expand students’ access to human beings otherwise entirely out of their reach, potentially expanding their reservoir of social capital.

The end of Google Helpouts, however, is not altogether surprising. From the sound of it, Google faced something of a classic innovator’s dilemma. Helpouts was not growing fast enough to keep up with the projections that the company had set for it. Not only was growth not keeping pace with other strands of Google’s business, but Helpouts also was potentially highly disruptive relative to traditional search functions; if you can find a reliable insight from an expert, you stand to radically lower the search costs associated with sorting through long lists of digital content characteristic of Google’s search engine. But the innovator’s dilemma, in a nutshell, is that a company’s current business model is designed to serve its most demanding customers, rather than serving a different customer base or seed alternative business models that stand to compete with the core business. The fact that the company did not provide the patient capital to nurture a product with some potential to disrupt its current offerings is exactly the conundrum we’ve observed in company after company, even a company as dedicated to innovation as Google.

So where does that leave us in terms of imagining the viability of a Helpouts-like tool in education? It bears noting that Google Helpouts did not face a technology problem; video-based connections are relatively reliable with sufficient bandwidth. The real challenge when it came to connecting users to on-demand experts is finding the models—business and delivery models—that would attract users, tap into their latent needs, and source high-quality experts. That’s the same challenge we have to tackle in EdTech as we try to open school systems up to bringing outside experts, mentors, and peers into classrooms.

Finding the right business models to support on-demand expertise in the K–12 school system is tricky. One problem is valuation. It remains challenging to figure out how to appropriately value and price these interactions, as the market for mentoring and coaching is relatively weak, and it can be difficult to measure the outcomes associated with a brief interaction with an expert. As Greg Wolff of UnaMesa, an R&D organization in Palo Alto, Calif., put it, “You can’t value an experience you haven’t had yet.”

Another problem is figuring out who in the current system is willing to pay for products that connect classrooms to experts. David Bebko, founder of Crowdworks, Inc. (which includes UnitedTeach, a video platform for experts to interface with classrooms) and former Google executive thinks that the market for Helpouts-like tools in education will remain small until we rethink the role of teachers. In Bebko’s estimation:

The real challenge lies not in budgets or privacy, but in the expected role of our classroom teachers and their success metrics. Mainstream demand for external live experts is dependent on our classroom leaders assuming the role of “learning enablers” versus “teachers.” The more success is defined by achievement of common standards, the less likely teachers are to relinquish control of instruction—particularly live instruction. We have to overcome this dilemma for the demand for external resources to flourish.

Teachers’ roles may gradually shift as more schools turn to blended learning, but this change won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, video-based access to experts may have to find the pockets of the system primed for this innovation. For example, Nepris, a company that connects STEM professionals to classrooms using video technology, has found that the greatest demand comes from schools pursuing project-based learning or career and technical education (CTE) models, each of which emphasize real-world application and have strong ties to industry at the core of its philosophy. Among its customers, Nepris is finding that schools demand clear curricular alignment between what experts can offer and the standards that teachers are expected to teach. In other words, access to experts is nice, but to gain traction in the current system, the platform and experts need to fit within the clear structures of academic standards to which students and teachers are held accountable.

Like any disruptive innovation, the development of a viable marketplace of on-demand experts will likely take time. In the meantime, efforts to find proof of concepts, like Nepris and Crowdworks, should remind us that Google Helpouts’ demise doesn’t need to limit our imagination around the future of on-demand interactions between experts and students. We just need to keep figuring out the business models that can get us there.

Note: A previous version of this blog post stated that Nepris sells sessions with experts to schools. In fact, Nepris is a subscription-based platform, meaning that teachers can access a free version and have the option to upgrade to a premium version in order to have unlimited access to connect with industry networks. Additionally, 40% of the teachers currently using the platform are sponsored by corporations.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.