Online Tutors: Education a Click Away

At the end of every school day, eighth-grader Taylor Robison heads home for a session with her tutor.

But Taylor's tutor, Gary Ishwar, doesn't come to her house. In fact, he's never been to America.

Ishwar lives in Bangalore, India -- 9,000 miles from Taylor's Modesto, Calif., home. A former schoolteacher who says he holds two master's degrees, Ishwar is one of a growing number of highly educated Indians now tutoring U.S. students over the Internet.

Students from elementary to graduate school can get help any time of the day or night, from the comfort of their homes. Subjects range from math to English.

It's the outsourcing of education. Just like manufacturing or service jobs, the task of teaching America's youth is no longer limited by borders.

Driving the trend is cost. Private tutoring in the United States can cost $100 an hour or more. An online session with an Indian tutor runs around $20 an hour -- and can cost much less than that if students sign up for a monthly rate.

Denise Robison, Taylor's mom, realized her daughter needed extra help after her grades slid last year from A's to C's.

"She was not getting it, and was just losing ground," she said.

As a single mom, Robison couldn't afford private tutoring for Taylor, so she decided to try an online service that her sister had recommended called TutorVista. She signed up Taylor in June for daily sessions with an Indian tutor in English and math at $100 a month.

"We did our own summer-school program," Robison said.

Offshore tutoring companies are still a relatively small segment of the $4 billion U.S. tutoring industry. But they're multiplying fast.

Online companies like TutorVista, Careerlauncher and Educomp are hoping to compete for millions of federal dollars available to private tutoring firms under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated that the government pay for private tutoring for students in underperforming schools.

According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, only 19 percent of students who qualify for those services are currently getting help. Proponents say offshore tutors could be a solution for many students -- especially lower-income ones, many of whom live in rural areas where private tutors are hard to find.

"It requires out-of-the-box thinking to solve the problem, which is what we are doing," said Krishnan Ganesh, president of TutorVista. "Indian teachers on the Internet will get it solved."

But critics worry foreign tutors aren't always well equipped to teach American students. The American Federation of Teachers argues that any tutor -- whether in this country or not -- who is receiving federal dollars ought to be certified.

"What's very, very important is for the tutor to be familiar with the state standard in that particular state, and the assessments and the curriculum that that district uses," said Nancy Van Meter, deputy director of the teachers organization. "It's highly unlikely that offshore tutors are going to have that kind of familiarity."

For some Americans, Indian tutors may present an uncomfortable reminder that U.S. students are lagging behind many of their foreign colleagues, particularly in the fields of math and science.

Based on the U.S. students he's tutored, Ishwar says he's come to the conclusion that math "is occupying a low priority in the age group of 5 to 16 in American schools." He's also struck by the "gratitude" his U.S. students express for his efforts on their behalf. In India, he said, "it's taken for granted that teachers have to do a good job."

TutorVista gives all its tutors 60 hours of language and cultural training, to help them better relate to U.S. students -- including teaching them American slang.

But there are still practical drawbacks to this form of tutoring. Students need the right equipment -- a computer with fast Internet access, a headset with a microphone, and a tablet with a pen.

The service also can be impersonal -- particularly if students don't get to use the same tutor each time. And communication glitches are almost inevitable.

When Taylor started using the service, she had trouble understanding her tutor's accent.

Still, she said the benefits, like the fact that she can attend her tutoring sessions in her pajamas, outweighed the negatives. And she said the results at school had been noteworthy: "It's made me more prepared and more confident."

Her mom concurs. "It's just her attitude, the triumphant feeling she has."