Friday, October 06, 2006

The Rise of Virtual Tutors

Here's a nice overview of the state of online education from ARSTechnica, a very good technical information site.

Virtual schools and tutors offer students new opportunities by Jeremy Reimer.

Companies such as TutorVista, a firm based out of Bangalore, offer online tutoring from university-educated instructors (many who have masters degrees in their chosen subject) who have been trained to speak English with the merest trace of an accent. Technologies such as VoIP allow students and instructors to communicate verbally while assisting with assignments online. The service costs $2.50 an hour, compared to fees ranging from $25 to $100 an hour for tutors in the US.

Students and parents are finding the inexpensive tutoring services to be excellent value for their money, but some groups worry that some of the advantages of homegrown tutoring will be lost. "Tutoring providers must keep in frequent touch with not only parents but classroom teachers," said Nancy Van Meter, a director at the American Federation of Teachers. "We believe there is greater difficulty in an offshore tutor doing that."

However, there are those who believe that their local education system is in bad enough shape that supplemental tutoring alone will not fix it. Some of these people have turned to a full virtual schooling system, such as First College, an online high school that opened in the United Kingdom this January. First College offers courses in English, math, history, geography, combined sciences, and French, with four teachers who provide up to eight hours of instruction each. Students can take their lessons from any computer that is hooked up to the Internet. The school charges £594 per term, equivalent to about $3,400 for a full year.

Parents of children who have found difficulties with regular schools due to bullying—a common problem in the UK—report that the virtual schools offer a superior educational experience. "I can't really think of any problems with it. To be honest, I'm just surprised it's taken so long to catch on," said one mother of a student at First College.

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