Tuesday, October 31, 2006

eTutoring: Towards a successful business strategy

According to some industry estimates, tutoring is a $5 billion dollar market. The US government has budgeted up to a thousand dollars per public school student to provide her extra academic support.

How much these figures are off the mark is open to debate. But everyone is certain about a few things.

• That we need quality academic help for our children.

• That this quality help is not really as easily available in spite of all the money flowing in the market.

• That the problem is magnified in remote areas.

We need to find some more efficient and acceptable solution to this alarming situation.

In spite of all the media interest and a growing community of etutoring service providers, this form is yet to achieve a “critical mass.” By some estimates, etutoring forms perhaps five percent of the total tutoring market!

A study of mainstream tutoring businesses reveals an interesting spectrum. At one end, tutoring is a highly personalized service delivered in person in the home. At the other, is the one-on-many “classroom” scenario of the tutoring center. Most tutoring businesses currently operate in an either-or model.

In what online, etutoring firms call the “offline” model, the critical resource is the tutor. Getting local market acceptance is relatively easy. The problem is the availability of quality tutors and “market reach.” One face-to-face tutoring center can only cater to students a few miles around it. And there is the matter of high cost.

The online tutoring model, on the other hand, opens up virtually unlimited global tutoring resources to a business. But local cceptance of the new concept remains an uphill task. Parents still associate internet with entertainment, at best. In fact, a lot of them, for absolutely understandable reasons, block Internet access for their children when they are supposed to be studying. They are comforted by the physical presence of their tutor.

An obvious solution is to take advantage of the pluses of these two seemingly divergent approaches by integrating on-line and off-line tutoring.

With a hybrid model, businesses stand to gain from all perspectives:

• Parents are assured of a “physical” presence of a hitherto “virtual” entity - at a blended pric.

• The on-line business gets access to a local market through the off-line business

• The off-line business can excape the constraint of local tutoring talent and, because students are visting the site and/or tutors are visiting student’s home less frequently, geographic reach can be extended.

The hybrid model comes with its own complications, and the biggest, ironically, is in the ability of the leadership to make the conceptual synergy work for real businesses. To date, firms have built business and teaching models down one path or the other. Merging the oideas involves joint action and dividing the risk, burdens and rewards is always problematic.

Still, a look at the advantages suggests a certain inevitabality in the industry’s evolution. Competitive advantage will accrue to the firms that make it work first - or the group that decides to build th hybrid model from scratch.

-First Published in School Improvement Industry Weekly (www.siiwonline.com)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

An Idiot’s Guide to Online Tutoring

So, there’s been a lot of talk about Online Tutoring in these columns and elsewhere. It seems to be catching up, though, in relative terms, it still is the newborn baby in the big world of Supplementary Education Services. At last estimates, it would be around 3-4% of the total pond! A newborn needs an initiation into the real world by way of letting the world know about its arrival. Here is, then, the beginner’s guide to the exciting world of online tutoring.

First things first. We all know tutoring, where a tutor comes to the student and provides a highly customized help. Or the student goes to a tutor to get the same in various forms like one-on-one, small group, or more rarely, a large group. One-on-one is the most personalized form. Small group is a way of clubbing “like” students to use the resources more efficiently at a lesser cost. Large group is typically used more for test prep, where the feeling of competition enhances performance. Online tutoring is possible in all of these forms, plus, a form where the student learns herself.

How does this happen? A student would need any standard computer with a decent internet connection (more the bandwidth, better the experience). To speak with the tutor, she should have a standard headset with a microphone. An additional, but optional, piece of hardware is a digitizer, or a digital pen. This helps the student to write in the free form instead of typing or using the mouse. This completes the set of hardware needed to get tutored online. In most homes, all but the digitizer is available. The digitizer might cost about $100, which is, at times, provided by the tutoring companies as a part of the starter pack at a cost.

Online tutoring services range from the very basic to highly advanced. In fact, if you have a Windows XP at both ends, you can do the basic form on the freely available msn messenger! The tutor simply uses his knowledge and the student’s books to provide help on a need-to-know basis. At the other end of the spectrum, there are systems developed to keep track of the student’s progress and the tutors are provided help in the form of well-researched content. The teachers can use the system to know exactly what to teach. The more advanced systems will enable tutors to use tools like graphing calculators and java applets to explain a concept. Web Safaris to take students to fabulous internet content including videos is another way to use the exploratory mode for an effective learning. One of the benefits that some companies might also provide is the “playback” option to review a past session. Some companies might also ask the student to do some work at home.

Once the student has signed up with a tutoring company, she usually needs to install proprietary software for the first time. The instructions to enter the online class are provided at appropriate times. Even though this description might seem a little overwhelming, the actual process is not any more complex than installing a computer game.

In my view, there are a lot of advantages that online tutoring offers when compared with the conventional face-to-face tutoring. Of course, today the bandwidth availability can enable the video as well, but most tutoring companies would rather maintain that distance between the tutor and the child. That brings me to the child safety advantage. The pedagogic advantage is the use of tools like animation and java applets, which are probably not even possible in a normal tutoring situation.

The flip side is the “remoteness” of the service. Some parents and children do not feel very comfortable with a faceless person tutoring them. To overcome this, good tutors would know how to build that rapport with the student, with constant engagement and encouragement. With the right people in the front, and a system to take care of the backend, online tutoring is the best that could happen to a child. Possibilities are immense, and so are the various options available. You just need to be careful about choosing the service.

Already students from far off places are using online tutoring to get the teaching quality not otherwise available to them. Just to use an oft-quoted statement by John Chambers, CEO of CISCO, “E-learning will make e-mail look like a rounding error.” Online tutoring is a step in the right direction.

-First Published in School Improvement Industry Weekly (www.siiwonline.com)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Education: Beyond boundaries of thought and instruction

Envision a world with no boundaries. All are free to move, to trade, to serve and to learn. Now guess where a student would go to get the highest standard of education in science, engineering, medicine or management. Her destination would most likely be somewhere in the United States.

America - the ultimate destination of that learner, is ironically struggling to find enough educators to teach her own young! Education experts have estimated that more than 2 million new teachers will be needed in the next decade and say demand will increase dramatically because the new law requires a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006. Another major cause of concern is a declining and ageing population, which is seeing a lot more retiring teachers than ever before.

Take the case of India. According to a recent report in the Christian Science Monitor, India is short of engineering faculty by 10-30%. The reason: India’s economic success story has attracted these college teachers to the country’s rapidly growing high technology business sector.

There are linkages in these two seemingly unrelated stories. There have been reports about Indian and other foreign nationals migrating to the US as school teachers. Such is the severe crunch in the American education system, that quick one-year certification programs were designed to attract people from other professions - and even other countries. But with NCLB’s highly qualified teacher deadline fast approaching, public education is closing its doors to these alternate teachers as well.

In this situation, how can NCLB’s provision to provide Supplementary Education Services to all “needy” students in schools identified for improvement be fulfilled? Private tutoring establishments have been trying their best to hire tutors with the ability to help students achieve state standards.

Part of our “world with no boundaries” is the Internet. For example, a Canadian student of European history can now explore historical events through participation in a game-like website linking students around the world. This is surely more effective learning than simply reading a book. This is one example of how the Internet provides opportunities to redefine teaching and learning while keeping costs affordable. Another is the decision of American tutoring firms to turn to a land of abundance - India, and make Indian tutors available to U.S. students via the Internet.

To put it mildly, the experiment has been successful. It’s a win-win situation for the tutoring companies and the tutors. However, the biggest beneficiary has been the American student. For her, where the learning originates is immaterial. What is important to her is the availability of the best talent to groom her young mind.

Policymakers’ attention should shift from where tutoring originates to how we check the quality of teaching that happens on the Internet. This translates into developing stringent standards and processes that ensure consistently high quality. Organizations like National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) and Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation (CITA) would do well to formulate guidelines for online initiatives that do not pre-suppose any geographical limitations. Federal and state education agencies should focus on how to make this model work. Education companies trying to get into online education must establish operations that minimize cost and take advantage of the immense potential of the Internet.

Let learning happen at its best - unmindful of from where or by whom. The uppermost criterion is what and how. Education and health are the most basic of human needs and students deserve the open resource availability across the world. The rest of the stakeholders in this process are merely enablers.

-First Published in School Improvement Industry Weekly (www.siiwonline.com)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Online Tutoring: Using a Global “Exchange” to Match Supply and Demand

Last week the Dean of Academic Affairs at one of the American university clients asked if our online teachers could help returning adult students without access to assistance off campus. This was not the first email of its kind. But it was the first time a client made no mention about cost savings to the institution. His sole motivation was the isolated students’ need for quality support. It is a good indication of online teaching’s growing “demand side”.

Our experience on the supply side offers an interesting counterpoint. As a profession, teaching has never been the best paymaster - anywhere in the world. Talent tends to be pulled to more lucrative offerings, even when no small part of it hears teaching’s siren song. Only the most motivated actually take up the calling. Most are drawn to metropolitan areas; to be precise, suburbs rather than inner cities or rural areas. Many of the most talented who move to isolated schools end up as managers. These institutions are hard-pressed to supply their isolated students with classroom teachers across the curriculum.

What options does society have to bring the best teaching to isolated students? One idea is to make teaching in more remote areas financially attractive. An alternative is having all teachers work in these locations for a certain period of time as a part of their own professional development. One is costly, the other takes a great many operational changes. Both are long-term strategies at best.

Online tutoring promises to provide more isolated students with high quality support from a wide variety of subject-matter specialists. Time zone differences can actually help all students - allowing them to ask a tough question at midnight, let someone work on the problem overnight, and then attack it again in the morning with renewed vigor. Separating teaching from the class day and room also permits “just-in-time” online support in narrow parts of the curriculum - breaking down operational barriers that neither attract nor allow “non-teacher” professionals to work in traditional classrooms.

There is an emerging market democracy of “exchanges” matching students and teacher on the web. It is destroying the old barriers of time and geography, but enhancing traditional means of education. In our firm I have seen a part-time Indian tutor transacting to support a newAmerican student and working with that student online within thirty minutes of the student’s initial contact.

Getting these exchanges to work well - matching a student with the right expert at the right time - is not a trivial task. India may churn out 50 million university graduates every year, but all are not ready for global tutoring. Even “universal” subjects like math and the sciences are dealt with differently by each continent, country, region, state and locality.

For each student, the value-added of the best exchanges is a teacher who knows exactly what they need to learn and how they learn best. In the “exchange” business, competitive advantage lies in how candidate tutors are screened, trained for the global online environment, a large and varied stable of subject/grade experts developed, and knowing enough about students to make the right match quickly.

What online tutoring needs are better ways to make these meetings happen easily. Instead of waiting for another university dean’s call, we need to be proactive in letting our teachers meet their students online. This is our industry’s great challenge, and something our firm is working hard to improve. ••••

-First Published in School Improvement Industry Weekly (www.siiwonline.com)