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Ottawa Citizen
October 10, 2006 Tuesday

E-tutoring offers pupils affordable learning help: Having a tutor in India
isn't just possible, it's becoming the thing to do, writes Tom Spears

Tom Spears, The Ottawa Citizen

When his daughter struggled with Grade 10 algebra, Ganapathi Ravi of Cary, North Carolina, went hunting for a tutor. But they cost too much -- $30 an hour -- until he found a tutor thousands of kilometres away, in India.

Today his daughter is spending an hour a day, five days a week, talking to a young man in India who has a couple of math degrees and a fast Internet connection. And the algebra is progressing.

In the education business, this is called e-tutoring: Internet voice and video links that connect North American, European and Australian students with India's well-educated, but lower-paid, labour force.

"We had been looking in the local area, in North Carolina, and we didn't get the right kind (of tutor)" Mr. Ravi said. "And the rate was much higher than what we can afford."

He's thrilled with the e-tutoring deal: For $100 U.S. a month, his daughter can have unlimited access to one tutor from a company called TutorVista who follows the curriculum of the North Carolina school system.

"We had a session for one or two days, and my daughter was liking the way they were teaching. It's going very well."

In Bangalore, dozens of young Indian men and women with master's degrees are up before dawn, ready to help North American high school students with King Lear, calculus, or the chemical equations in photosynthesis.

They've even taken classes in American slang to help bridge the gap.

Technology now lets the student in Canada and a tutor in India talk directly (voice-over- Internet) and each see the words, numbers, graphs and diagrams the other is writing (on a virtual whiteboard).

It's just good business, says Patricia Perry, vice-president of TutorVista. The firm operates entirely online, largely through Indian tutors in the Bangalore area who can work from home or from a company office.

The company has about 1,500 students in North America who pay the $100 a month (U.S.) for unlimited tutoring -- averaging about 12 or 13 hours a month for most students.

But Mrs. Perry says she's also struck by the personal connection carried across oceans by streaming electrons.

"If a student misses a session, we call to make sure there hasn't been some miscommunication," she says. "But it's kind of taken a twist; the tutors want to make sure they're all right, (that) they're not sick."

About 70 per cent of the students who sign up are in high school; about 20 per cent are in university. The rest are in elementary grades.

"Math and English are very popular. So are the sciences, mainly physics and chemistry," she says.

The service advertises on websites in the United States, but operates globally. "Because we're online, anyone can find us. We've had customers in France, in the U.K., in Australia." Also in Canada, though she doesn't know how many.

"Most of the sessions are for an hour, but sometimes students ask for back-to-back sessions. And we have adults who are taking college courses who sometimes want more than one hour for a really intense study session. Yes, it's usu-ally at exam time."

The tutoring is geared specifically toward an American curriculum, and to a whole alphabet-ful of college entrance exams -- SAT, MCAT, GMAT, and so on.

The tutors' accent is, of course, Indian. For many students in North America, it's completely unfamiliar.

"It works," Mrs. Perry says. "We have our tutors go through 60 hours of training before their tutoring, and part of that is training in the American accent." This involved training them not to use some idioms that would provoke a "Huh?" at this end of the line, as well as some practice in understanding American slang.

The accent usually isn't a problem, Mrs. Perry says.

Still, the United States can bring regional accent challenges, and the company is planning to adjust to them. In fu-ture, she hopes, "if there's someone from the South, they're hopefully going to be paired up with a tutor who has other southern students."

There has to be what Mrs. Perry calls "a click," a close working relationship between student and tutor, or the learn-ing just won't happen. For that reason, the company offers to switch students to another tutor if they aren't making a connection.

Otherwise, however, they always try to set up sessions with the same tutor for as long as they stay with the com-pany.

TutorVista demands that all its tutors have at least a master's degree in the subject they teach, as well as some teaching or tutoring experience. There are a few times when someone's academic qualifications are so good that they come on staff without teaching experience, Mrs. Perry acknowledges, but in those cases they spend some time shadow-ing another tutor before the company lets them loose to work with students alone.

There are "a handful" of other e-tutoring firms using Asian tutors, she says. "But I could definitely see it growing. The resource is there.

"It's so important to make sure that middle America, middle Canada, and also lower-income (families) can afford a good education."

Officials with the public and separate school boards in Ottawa hadn't heard of students in this area signing up for e-tutoring.

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