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Online tutoring

November 11, 2010

A UK company has started outsourcing math tuition for pupils aged seven to 16 to graduates recruited and trained in India - and British primary schools are beginning to sign up for the online offer in increasing numbers.

computer screen with math on it
Students and their tutors communicate via an online blackboardImage: DW/Potts

BrightSpark offers the one-to-one tuition via Skype. It is designed to help children who might be struggling in school, as well as stretch high-achievers.

Nick Treloar, a 15-year-old student at the French lycée in London, used to have a tutor come to the house. But he finds the online tuition a more flexible alternative.

"It's a whenever-you-want system," Nick said. "You can book the session for any time of day. It's you that says 'I want this hour to this hour.' It's your choice, so whenever you have a free period during the day, or you finish an hour earlier, then you can come home, and sit down and do this session."

Nick's tutor Nathan is based thousands of miles away, in Ludhiana, India. Nick has never even seen what his tutor looks like. But he can hear him, as he guides Nick through math problems on a white board that they can both see and write on - a more effective method than simply chatting with a camera on Skype.

A manageable structure

Nathan speaks fluent American English from having tutored US students online. He is 31 years old, and has a five-year-old daughter. He earns about eight euros ($11) an hour, which he says is more than double what many people his age are earning in other professions in India.

Nathan carries out his work from PunjabImage: DW/Potts

For him, tutoring is not just about the money, though, but the love of mentoring students and shaping their future. Nathan holds a master's degree in mathematics and he has been handpicked and trained for the job. He had already been tutoring American school kids via the web for three years before joining BrightSpark. He said he was impressed with British students.

"It's a much better level with UK students, and often with some subjects, they start them much younger," Nathan said.

The time difference between the UK and India is four-and-a-half hours, which Nathan said is manageable. He said if a British student books the latest session available, at 9 pm in the UK, it is 1:30 am in Ludhiana.

Nathan is currently part of a team of 30 tutors. But the company expects to grow to 100 tutors - all working out of small office booths with laptops and Skype headsets.

Lack of specialists

British demand for online math tutorials is growing, according to BrightSpark Education chief Tom Hooper. He saw an acute need in Britain for specialized math tuition for struggling school kids, and introduced Indian online tutors after seeing the project work in the US.

One British primary school is already using the online tutorials in class to support the teacher - and there are more schools in the pipeline. Hooper is also working with charities in deprived areas and housing estates by introducing the online tutorials to drop-in centers, where mothers can drop their kids off, for an hour's session at a computer terminal.

He says there is a shocking lack of specialist math teachers in Britain.

computer screen welcoming student
Tutors are virtual at BrightSparkImage: DW/Potts

"Only 11 percent of teachers have a degree in the subject they teach, and only eight percent have any training," Hooper said. "We thought by going to India, we could bring in a level of academic talent that is 100 percent related to math and a 100 percent trained. That's why we are seeing a benefit for our students."

Hooper also said it's not just British children who need help.

"There are distinct problems among elements of the adult population who have very low numeracy skills, which creates problems socially, but also for unemployed people who want to re-engage with the workforce," he said.

The tutoring industry in Britain is completely unregulated, according to Hooper. The company therefore introduced its own strict standards for data protection, assuring their clients their data are closely guarded. Students often get a different tutor with every new session, and the tutors know nothing about them, except their name.

With plans to expand the online tutoring business to other subjects, Hooper rejects the accusation that Indians are somehow taking away British teaching jobs.

"I strongly reject that allegation," he said. "We are not outsourcing British jobs; we are in-sourcing specialist skills."

Progress is visible

Nick likes the flexibility of online tutoringImage: DW/Potts

For Nick's father Phil, the online tutoring helps him monitor his son's progress. He can see how many sessions Nick is booking, because he pays for them - and he can see tangible results in Nick's math scores.

"We are able to see his progress, and it makes him much more open to be able to tell us which areas he is dropping back in and needs help," Phil said.

An online tutor from India costs clients on average of 13 euros an hour. A tutor in person can cost up to 46 euros - three times as much. With that price difference, and specialist math tutors on offer, the company said they expect more students like Nick to sign up.

Author: Nina-Maria Potts / sms
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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