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It's Not Worth Paying for This Online Tutor

April 13, 2006|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

The homework helper in my family, when I was growing up, was Mom.

Dad was willing to help but he had a tendency to make up stuff, which is how at a young age I came to believe that the "D.C." following "Washington" stood for "Daddy of our Country."

Now there is a more reliable source of help for kids: Cosmeo. Backed by Discovery Communications Inc. -- the company that produces the Discovery cable television channels -- the website is a pay service that uses streaming videos, games, interactive exercises, text articles and photos to explore a variety of school subjects.

For $12.95 a month (the first month is free), it's supposed to take on some of the tasks that used to be performed by Mom, only it's better because it understands trigonometry.

There are plenty of free homework-help sites, most of which deal with specific subjects. Some of the best are math sites that provide practice problems. Others give insight into subjects such as art history, archeology and chemistry.

Cosmeo aims to cover it all: math, science, social studies, English, health, art and music.

To evaluate the service, I tried it out on a number of topics. I also had two kids -- a fifth- and a ninth-grader -- give it test runs on topics covered in their classes.

To sum up our findings: If this were a parent-teacher conference, we would say of Cosmeo what was often said of me in school -- "has potential."

The home page, at, presented an overall look at the service with main subject headings across the top.

On the math page, at the bottom right was the entry to WebMath, a section that showed the service's best and worst features.

First, the best. WebMath did a great job of showing how problems in arithmetic, algebra and trigonometry were solved.

For example, in the section on adding fractions, I typed 4/9 + 6/14 into a problem solver. It produced a step-by-step explanation of how to get the answer. (For those of you who didn't do it in your heads, the answer is 55/63.)

Pretty cool -- but also, potentially, a negative. It would be awfully tempting to simply plug in homework problems and get the answers without working through the exercises.

Worse, Cosmeo offered only a highly limited number of practice problems -- a staple of math education.

The ninth-grader, Cary Cousineau, joined me to look up information on two books he was about to study in his English literature class: J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" and Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."

"Catcher in the Rye" got only two hits: one article, similar to an encyclopedia entry, on Salinger and another that took a broad look at American literature.

The Bradbury book had just one mention -- in an article on science fiction.

Competing sites, such as the well-known study-guide publisher Cliffs Notes ( and SparkNotes (, were far more helpful. They offered study guides that included chapter-by-chapter synopses and essays about the works and the authors.

Plus, these guides were free for the reading. You could also print them out section by section. Neater, downloadable versions of the study guides were available on these sites for about $5 to $6 apiece.

Although not as wide-ranging as Cosmeo, these sites didn't stop at literature. SparkNotes, for example, carried Algebra textbooks with test problems, also free for the viewing.

Cary did find a couple of useful, chemistry-themed videos on Cosmeo, including one on "Naming Compounds and Balancing Equations."

The demonstrations in the video were reasonably clear, although a practice quiz at the end cut off before giving him the correct answers.

Next it was his sister's turn. Fifth-grader Casey looked up "medieval medicine" and found 37 text entries and three pictures of woodcuts of medical scenes from the era.

"These would be good for a report," Casey said of the woodcuts.

Then she turned to the subject of biological classification, glancing at the descriptions of several videos on the subject.

She came upon one featuring Bill Nye, the genial host of children's science shows on TV.

"I love him!" Casey said. She looked at clips from all five of the Nye programs on the service and was not interested in much else.

There was nothing wrong with Cosmeo as an educational vehicle, near as I could tell. It was especially fun to wander through it, sampling the videos that sparked interest.

But it could not stand up to many free educational sites that focus on single subjects. And Cary and Casey had no trouble tracking down these focused sites. "I go to Google," Cary said.

Cosmeo's potential strength is in its use of multimedia materials, such as the ones that attracted Casey. But as a paid site, it has to heed the cautionary tale of the esteemed Encyclopedia Britannica, which has long struggled as a subscription service in competition with the overwhelming number of free websites.

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