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October 10, 2006

More students needing extra help turn to overseas tutors

By Kellie Patrick
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA - It's 8 p.m., and Sneha Abraham is ready for her geometry lesson. She turns on the computer in her brother's bedroom, and soon receives an e-mail hello from a tutor in India.

Abraham - a junior at East High School in West Chester, Pa., who hopes tutoring will boost her score on the coming SAT - is one of a growing number of U.S. students whose tutors live and teach outside this country.

There is a strong demand for tutors in the United States, propelled in part by high-achieving students shooting for admission into competitive colleges and by others who qualify for publicly funded tutoring because they attend a failing school under No Child Left Behind. Some online, offshore companies already provide NCLB tutoring; others say they will apply to states soon.

Can students learn this way? Critics say in-person tutoring is best and warn that no one monitors what these companies offer.
But those who use or sell online tutoring say it can be as effective and at less cost.

"It has helped a lot," Abraham said. "Sometimes, the teacher will go over stuff we hadn't gone over in class yet, and so I get it two times. It's not that I enjoy it - I don't really like doing math - but I understand it."

For the last several years, tutoring companies such as TutorVista, based in Bangalore, India, have been forming expressly to meet U.S. demand. It has 1,200 students so far, including a dozen in the Philadelphia region and 130 tutors. By next year, the company expects to have 4,000 students.

Other companies, including California's Growing Stars, which has 500 students, are headquartered here, but have offshore tutoring centers - similar to the call centers used by credit-card companies.

U.S. students are linked by the Internet with overseas tutors who often hold advanced degrees, but will work for much less than most American tutors.

Offshore, online tutoring is just the beginning of what Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the nonprofit International Society for Technology in Education, calls "the globalization of education."

Education officials in the Philippines, Jamaica, India, Malaysia and Costa Rica want to train their teachers to U.S. education standards, he said. Some will come here to teach, while others tutor or teach online.

Right now, much of the appeal of overseas tutors - both for employing companies and hiring parents - is their cost.

"In India, in the tutoring biz, you get the same quality of skill for less than half-price," Knezek said.

Abraham studies with Growing Stars - the California-based tutoring company that has its tutoring center in India.

Director of enrollment Wayne Burckhardt said families pay a set-up fee of $150, then $25 per hour of tutoring. There are extra fees, ranging from $75 to $125, so tutors can have the same textbook. And there are package deals that bring down the hourly rate, he said.

Kaplan, one of the best-known tutoring companies in the United States, charges $1,999 for 20 hours of one-on-one academic instruction in the student's home - about $100 per hour. Kaplan does not have online tutoring. It does have an online, self-guided SAT prep program that costs $399.

There are many online tutors, but qualifications vary. Eric Jordan, student/tutors coordinator for the New York-based tutoring clearinghouse, said the online tutors who list with his company charge from $15 to $50 per hour.

Growing Stars founder Biju Mathew got the idea for his company when he moved from India to California six years ago and was shocked at the cost of hiring tutors for his children.

TutorVista charges about $100 per month for unlimited tutoring. There are no set-up fees, but students are responsible for buying some equipment.

Krishnan Ganesh, 45, the company's founder and CEO, used to run one of the biggest call centers in India. About a year and a half ago, he came to the United States and, through interviews across the country, learned that Americans would be comfortable with Indians teaching their children.

Tutors, who are generally schooled in British English, learn American teen slang to help them communicate with their students. Some use American-sounding nicknames at first.

Glenmore Wilkinson, 44, is tutored nightly by TutorVista tutors in statistics and microbiology to help him prepare for a nursing program at the Community College of Philadelphia.

He has no trouble understanding his TutorVista tutors without whom he said he could not have done well in statistics. TutorVista tutors are trained in American teaching methods and learn what is taught in certain states so they can be assigned students from those states.

TutorVista tutors make about $300 to $350 per month in U.S. dollars, depending on experience. All have teaching experience - 10 percent were previously tutors, and the rest have taught in schools or universities. Many have master's degrees.

TutorVista tutor Suresh Basappa, 28, works from 1:30 to 10:30 a.m., India time, as a math tutor. He holds a master's degree in math and an MBA. He finds his salary "competitive" and enjoys sharing his love for mathematics with his students. Critics say online tutoring is not as effective as the in-person kind.

"I still believe tutoring is a kind of process where you need to be in front of the person you're tutoring," said Lynn Giese, interim president of the National Tutoring Association and coordinator of peer tutoring at Columbus State Community College.

Knezek, of the International Society for Technology in Education, takes a buyer-beware approach since he knows of no outside monitors.

Online tutoring is "an industry in its infancy," he said. "I think you'll find the quality and effectiveness uneven."

Annette Riffle, the general manager of the Kaplan Premier Private Tutor Division, said face-to-face tutoring can help better build the kind of rapport in which the tutor knows when to change teaching methods to help a student learn.

Basappa, the online tutor, wrote in an e-mail that his biggest challenge is "you have to understand the individual only by the way he speaks."

But proponents say many young people have no trouble, because they are used to communicating electronically.

Abraham, who has been with Growing Stars since the end of last school year, had been tutored in math by a college professor who charged $45 per half-hour to go to her home on Saturdays. There were frequent scheduling problems.

Abraham was initially skeptical of the online option.

"At first, it was kind of weird to talk to someone I couldn't see and probably wouldn't ever see," she said. But she's at ease talking on the phone and through instant messages - she recommends against online tutoring for anyone who is not - and was soon comfortable.

At Abraham's recent session, her tutor, whom she knows only as Rekha, mapped equations on a graph.

Abraham could see the problems her teacher was typing immediately, via software that linked their screens into a virtual whiteboard.

Rekha asked Abraham to show her work, say her answers out loud and then write them down. She also had to explain the "why" behind her answers.

"It's really hard to fake understanding something when she is asking you to do problems and talking to you - she can hear your voice," Abraham said. Besides, she said, she can be tutored in her pajamas if she wants to.

Abraham's mother, Mary, said her daughter had become a better student since she began studying with the tutor. "I wish I had known about it earlier," she said. She plans to eventually sign up her younger children, now 13 and 14.

About TutorVista

TutorVista's mission is to provide world class tutoring and high-quality content to students around the world. TutorVista is the premier online destination for affordable education-anytime, anywhere, in any subject. Students access TutorVista from the convenience of their home or in school and use TutorVista's comprehensive lessons and question bank to master any subject with access to a live tutor around the clock. The TutorVista idea: help students to excel in school and at competitive examinations. The management team consists of professionals from education, training and Internet fields whose expertise spans eLearning, instructional design, technology-based learning, professional services management, and Internet technologies. For more information, go to