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'Distance Learning' for Schoolkids Goes Global

The Internet enables American students to be aided by Indian tutors. The lessons, though not face to face, are low-cost and real-time.

January 01, 2006|Nirmala George and Martha Irvine | Associated Press Writers

COCHIN, India — A few stars are still twinkling in the inky pre-dawn sky when Koyampurath Namitha arrives for work in a quiet suburb of this south Indian city. It's barely 4:30 a.m. when she grabs a cup of coffee and joins more than two dozen colleagues, each settling into a cubicle with a computer and earphones.

More than 7,000 miles away, in Glenview, Ill., outside Chicago, it's the evening of the previous day and 14-year-old Princeton John sits at his computer, barefoot and ready for his hourlong geometry lesson. The high school freshman puts on a headset with a microphone and clicks on software that will link him through the Internet to his tutor, Namitha, many time zones away.

It's called e-tutoring -- yet another example of how modern communications and an abundance of educated, low-paid Asians, are broadening the boundaries of outsourcing and integrating overseas workers into the minutiae of American life, from replacing your lost credit card through reading your CAT scan to helping you revive your crashed computer.

Princeton is one of thousands of U.S. high school students turning to tutors in India.

"Hello Princeton, how are you? How was your test?" Namitha asks.

"Hello, yeah.... I'm good," Princeton replies. "It was good."

Namitha works for a company called Growing Stars, based in Cochin and Fremont, Calif. Princeton and his 12-year-old sister, Priscilla, each meet with their online math teacher twice a week.

The chitchat ends quickly, and a geometry worksheet pops up on Princeton's computer screen.

Teacher and pupil speak to each other, type messages and use digital "pencils" to work on problems, highlight graphs and erase mistakes. Princeton scrawls on something that looks like a hyped-up mouse pad and it shows up on Namitha's screen. He also can use a scanner to send copies of assignments or textbook pages that he needs help understanding.

"Here we go," Princeton says, as they begin a lesson on such concepts as parallel lines and complementary angles in the quiet coziness of the family's suburban home. Above him, on the desk, sit plastic figurines of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the Statue of Liberty. On the walls are framed photos of his family, including his grandparents, who -- by coincidence -- live in southern India.

His mom, Bessy, brings him orange juice and cookies.

"India has very good teachers, especially in math and science. Also, these subjects are culture-free, so it is comparatively easy for Indian teachers to teach them," says Kiran Karnik, who heads India's National Assn. of Software and Service Companies. "Online tutoring is an area which shows enormous potential for growth."

Most companies are reluctant to talk about earnings. But Shantanu Prakash, chief executive of India-based Educomp Datamatics, estimates that Indian online tutoring companies earned about $10 million last year, 80% of it from the United States.

That's small change in the Indian information technology industry -- a business built largely on the outsourcing that is shifting jobs from the West to cheaper foreign locations. Annual export revenue from offshore outsourcing last fiscal year totaled $17.2 billion.

But about a dozen Indian software firms are banking that online tutoring will flourish in America, where falling educational standards are causing concern.

The first e-tutoring businesses were started less than three years ago, and already thousands of Indian teachers coach U.S. students in math, science or English for $15 to $20 an hour, a fraction of the $40 to $100 that private tutoring costs in the United States.

The Indian firms have benefited from the growing U.S. government-financed tutoring industry, which had revenue last year of nearly $2 billion. That growth is partly due to the No Child Left Behind law, which requires schools to test students in math and reading every year from the third through the eighth grades.

Although the outsourced tutoring companies are competition for their U.S.-based counterparts, the National Education Assn. -- which represents millions of American teachers -- "enthusiastically supports the continued and expanded use of distance education," according to a statement and its guidelines for promoting quality teaching in class and online.

However, not every child has Internet access at home. "We think that good tutoring and good public schools should be available to every student, regardless of the family's income," said Denise Cardinal, an NEA spokeswoman.

Princeton's family pays its own tutoring bills, seeing online tutoring as a way to get high-quality instruction at a lower cost.

Most full-time teachers at Growing Stars earn about $230 monthly. Although the money is good by Indian standards, what's missing is one-on-one contact.

"This is a bit like teaching in a void," says Priya Shah, who helps high school students improve their English writing skills. "The lack of eye contact is a disadvantage, but it's a gap which one overcomes with time."

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