With one million registered users and 130,000 online courses ranging from JavaScript to hobbies and sports, Tutellus is the largest peer-to-peer online learning platform in the Spanish-speaking world. But it suffers from the same core challenge as other edtech ventures and the online courses offered by traditional colleges and universities: low student engagement and high dropout rates.

Miguel Solana

To turn the tide, learning platform, created in 2013, embraced the blockchain last fall, using tokens to involve students and teachers. With a June ICO currently in pre-sale, Tutellus hopes to make good on its goal of “changing the world through education.”

ThirtyK spoke with Miguel Solana, an early investor, director and advisor to Tutellus, about paying students to study, responding to employer needs and the broader shifts disrupting education. Before setting up his own blockchain advisory firm, Miguel led the innovation strategy of Santander Bank in China. Before that he was with Telefonica/O2 and at the World Bank.

ThirtyK: As an established platform, why did Tutellus move to the blockchain?

Solana: The transition came as a result of the major constraint for edtech platform growth, which is user engagement. People get excited about signing up for courses, but dropout rates are very high. People get tired, they say they’ll do it next year. It’s painful [to educators because] it involves huge customer acquisition costs and low retention rates.

A lot of us thought edtech was going to take off faster, but we later realized how hard it was to build [new] models. We started thinking about designing an incentive model that could address low engagement. One of the ideas we started to explore was the blockchain and how a tokenized model could incentivize students, teachers, and the whole community to ensure dropout rates go down and engagement goes up.

ThirtyK: The white paper describes the tokenized concept of paying students to study. How does the model work?

Solana: We shifted the concept of how we treat students by thinking about them as assets. We’re building assets for society and the future, and we should incentive students for being these assets. Teachers also have been badly disincentivized. Good teachers earn the same as bad teachers.

We have a dual token structure. One token is the STUT, which is an internal token that measures relevance and rewards good behavior in class, such as enrolling in a second course, helping other students, or being active in the learning community. You cannot buy relevance, so you can’t purchase it. You earn it. Teachers also can earn STUTs by getting high marks from students or contributing to the placement of students in the job market.

“Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world after Chinese but it’s more spread out, so that’s an advantage,” says Solana. “So we start from a strong entry point.”

Then we have the external token, the TUT, which provides you with the ability to enter and participate in the platform. It’s also the exit point, with the STUT converted into the TUT to monetize the relevance and good performance within the network. At any point, a student who is well trained could exchange their STUTs for TUTs and then go to an exchange and move them to something more liquid like bitcoin (BTC). 

ThirtyK: How do you see your relationships with traditional colleges and universities?

Solana: Some have been much more open than others. Some see us as competitors. Others see us as technology providers. I think we’ll still see both types of institutions. We can count on a significant number working with us.

We value university education, but we also see how education is changing. The shift to skills is something that employers are more suited to understand. We have stronger connectivity with employers and expect to have much better information about what skills people need much faster than a university can move.

ThirtyK: What about employers?

Solana: They are a big part of the governance model. In the past, a lot of these platforms focused on students and teachers but didn’t have connectivity with the job market. By using TUT [to identify prospective job candidates], employers actively inform us of the profiles of the workers they require, and the model [rewards] with tokens the teachers and students who focus on the skills they see as more important in the job market.

A key use case is an employer who wants to find three people for their [software] development department. They’ll put in TUTs to enter the platform and identify skilled candidates. The tokens are then distributed among the community. The students who are selected, the candidates showing the value of the platform, the teachers who participated, and a percentage for the operation of the platform.

ThirtyK: What are the goals of the ICO?

Solana: There are two big things. One obviously is to build the new infrastructure and systems we think are the right ones for edtech to take on. The second big thing is to make the platform blow up. We’ve been focusing on the Spanish-speaking market, but this obviously is going to be a global project. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world after Chinese but it’s more spread out, so that’s an advantage. So we start from a strong entry point.

Another important part is to fund a scholarship program. Instead of spending on other types of marketing, we’d like to encourage people to join the platform through scholarships. That’s consistent with what we want to do, change the world through education.

ThirtyK: Where does Tutellas go from here?

Solana: We have a mission of serving 100 million people in the next three years. We feel emerging economies have the best potential because their needs are higher. They have a workforce that has not been connected fully to the global job market, but now could because computer skills can be traded around the world.

Mark Toner
Mark Toner is a Washington, D.C., writer and editor. He has covered business, technology, media, education, and healthcare for a wide range of trade and industry publications.