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 (

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 (