Online Tutoring Services Pays Off At Home, Abroad

Mathew works for a US firm, but does his online tutoring services while seated at a computer in the southern Indian city of Cochin. Thanks to a high-speed Internet link, and software that lets him sketch chemical formulas onto a computer screen, Mathew can give 16-year-old Gaurav one-on-one online tutoring services from 8,000 miles and half a day away.

”I was skeptical at first,” said Gaurav’s mother, Nirmal, a developmental educator. ”But I decided to give it a shot, and it works beautifully.”

India has hundreds of thousands of science and math scholars, willing to work cheaply. Giant firms like Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp., and Intel Corp. farm out demanding technical tasks to Indian engineers and set up their own offices in cities like India’s high-tech haven of Bangalore.

Now, entrepreneurs with links to the subcontinent want to use Indian brainpower to buff up the lagging science and math skills of American students. These companies also hope to benefit from the federal No Child Left Behind law, which provides millions of dollars to states for remedial online tutoring services programs. That doesn’t sit well with teachers union officials, who say that online tutors don’t have to meet the same high standards as classroom teachers.

Bikram Roy founded Chicago-based Studyloft.com in November. Already, its office in Bangalore provides online tutoring services to 5,400 US students. ”We’re trying to leverage the accessibility of the Internet to bring students online tutoring services when they need it and where they need it,” Roy said.

Gaurav Sharma gets his chemistry online tutoring services from a Studyloft rival, Growing Stars Inc. of Fremont, Calif. Founded in 2002 by Indian expatriate Biju Mathew — who is not related to Gaurav’s tutor — Growing Stars serves about 400 US students.

Growing Stars was inspired by Mathew’s efforts to find a tutor for his own children. ”I was new to the country, and my children had tutors back there in India,” Mathew said. ”I knew they were very good, and I thought if I could make use of their services here in America, it would be a quality service and it would be affordable.”

Roy, born in the United States of Indian parents, created Studyloft in hopes of qualifying to receive a cut of the millions of dollars of state funding for remedial education of kids in poorly performing schools.

Mathew and Roy both hope to profit from India’s ample supply of high-quality, low-cost workers who speak English. US companies such as Educate Inc.’s Sylvan Learning Center chain offer Internet online tutoring services, for $47 to $52 an hour.

Another firm, Smarthinking.com, delivers Internet online tutoring services in high school and college subjects for $35 an hour.

But low Indian wage rates let Studyloft charge just $18 an hour. Growing Stars offers eight hours of online tutoring services for $200, or $25 an hour. Both Growing Stars and Studyloft say that the majority of their tutors hold master’s degrees or doctorates in their subjects; many also have degrees in education.

With the right software and a good Internet connection, tutor and student can speak to each other in real time, and use a pen-based tablet to write equations on an electronic whiteboard. Apart from the absence of eye contact, the online session is little different from a face-to-face meeting.

Parents like the flexibility. ”You don’t need someone to come to your house, or you don’t have to come to her,” said Basil Darras, a pediatric neurologist at Children’s Hospital Boston whose 14-year-old daughter, Irene, gets math online tutoring services through Growing Stars.

The tutors’ Indian accents sometimes confuse American ears. ”Sometimes it’s a little bit difficult,” said Irene. But it’s a manageable problem when studying math, thanks to the electronic whiteboard, which lets tutor and pupil write the universal language of equations.

”So far, I’m doing really well,” said Irene, whose average grade on tests and homework has climbed from the high 80s to the high 90s during the two months she’s been tutored. Her father is also pleased with Growing Stars. ”These people are professionals,” he said. ”They are very high-level teachers.”

Studyloft’s Roy thinks his tutors are good enough to participate in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That law requires school systems with large numbers of underperforming students to provide free online tutoring services. Already, Massachusetts and other states have paid millions of dollars to firms that offer both face-to-face and Internet online tutoring services. Roy launched his company precisely to tap this stream of government dollars. ”That’s obviously really big,” he said, ”because it’s free money.”

Despite online tutoring services thousands of students since November, Roy said, he’s not ready to sign up for No Child Left Behind. The law lets the states set educational standards, so online tutoring services firms must file separate applications in all 50 states. Studyloft tracks its students’ grades and test scores. Roy hopes that when he compiles enough evidence of success, it will be easier to win eligibility. Mathew also said he may try to qualify for government money.

But a major teachers union says the eligibility standards are too low. Nancy Van Meter, director of the Center on Accountability and Privatization at the American Federation of Teachers, said schools receiving federal funds must employ ”highly qualified teachers” with college degrees, a state teaching certificate, and proven competence in the subjects they teach. But remedial online tutoring services companies can gain eligibility for No Child Left Behind funds without meeting these standards. ”Tutors can have any qualifications or no qualifications,” Van Meter said.

She added that states don’t have the resources to test whether online tutoring services companies are improving student performance.

The Boston Globe reported in November that the Massachusetts Department of Education had spent over $21 million on online tutoring services programs in the previous three years, but had no idea whether the online tutoring services did any good.

Van Meter wants the federal law changed to require tutors to meet the same standards as public school teachers. That would dramatically raise the bar for tutors based in India, who have little hope of acquiring teacher certificates in one US state, let alone 50.

Still, tutors in India will be able to count on people like the Sharmas, who pay for Gaurav’s online tutoring services from their own pockets, and say it’s worth every cent.

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