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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tutoring just a click (and half a world) away

By Thomas Lee
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS It's a new world of after-school tutoring.

Sigrid Brost, an 11-year-old in Edina, Minn., speaks to her tutor over an Internet phone service.

Her tutor, Harmeet Kaur, is a graduate student in Delhi, India. Twice a week for about an hour, Kaur coaches her on everything from long division and percentages to fractions and decimal points.

The two work using a pen-like device and software that allow both Sigrid and Kaur to literally write out problems on the computer screen. TutorCo, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based startup company that provides the tutoring, can store the work and even e-mail it to Sigrid's parents.

Experts say remote tutoring can never supplant the benefits of personal one-on-one coaching. But Sigrid, who seemed more comfortable navigating the computer than converting percentages to decimals, doesn't mind.

"Actually, I like it better when I don't have to see them," said the shy fifth-grader.

Online tutoring has become a booming industry, experts say especially since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, a federal law that ties school funding to test performance.

And India, a country whose students are known for their math and science acumen, increasingly is providing the tutors. India-based firms like TutorVista and Career Launcher and U.S. companies founded by Indian expatriates, such as Growing Stars and www.StudyLofts.com, already tutor thousands of American students a year.

TutorCo is the brainchild of Sumit Dhawan, who moved from India to the United States in 1998 to earn an MBA from Indiana University and now works at General Mills. He noticed a shortage of math and science tutors. So, with his wife and a partner in India, Dhawan launched TutorCo in January 2007. The company tutored 65 students last year and hopes to reach 250 students this year.

John Brost, an information technology manager, said he spent $2,000 over four months on private tutoring for son Carl and daughter Sigrid. And the results speak for themselves, he said. Carl and Sigrid now test above the district average for their age groups.

But remote tutoring has its limitations, experts say.

"The vast majority of students need ... personal attention and advocacy," said Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consulting group in North Carolina. "It will always be better having someone sit next to you. I don't think anybody would dispute that."

Outsourcing specialist Isaac Cheifetz, founder of Minneapolis-based consulting firm Open Technologies, said remote tutoring offers the benefits of cultural exchanges and access to some of the world's best minds. But if it expands, some critical professions such as teaching might start to lose their value, he said.

"Education today is where information technology was 10 or 15 years ago," Cheifetz said.