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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Online Tutoring

Not quite virtual schooling, but I saw this in my ASCD SmartBrief:

Online tutoring booms under NCLB

Tutor.com aided 750,000 students with homework and other school issues last year as parents look for new ways to supplement classroom learning.The Boston Globe/Reuters

This is kind of interesting, as it was only a few weeks ago that I discovered that one of students I taught when she was in high school (who has just gotten a job as a teacher at the school that I taught her in) was a virtual tutor in an online program. In fact, she was employed by tutor.com so I asked her (via e-mail) some questions about the program:

  1. Are the students enrolled in regular high schools, homeschooled, virtual schools, or any combination of the three?
  2. Do they schedule appointments or are you paid to simply sit and wait for the students to come during a specified period of time?
  3. What software do you use (I see on the website they talk about IM and interactive whiteboards, but I'm wondering what specific programs)?
  4. Your role is not as a teacher (i.e., you don't teach the material), but for remediation purposes (i.e., someone else has taught it already and you're providing support or students who didn't get it the first time around)?
  5. Typically, where have the students been from?
  6. As a practitioner in this environment, have you ever sat back and wondering about any specific things that have occurred while you were working (i.e. have you ever finished and thought, I wonder why they do that?)? If so, what was it that you were curious to know more about?

She replied to these questions with the following:

  1. It's a combination of the three. Often large centers (such as libraries, schools, other student related places) purchase the program and students are able to use as often as they like at that building via the Internet. There is also a division called tutor.com direct, here parents often purchase tutoring solely for their children so that they can access the program from home.
  2. Appointments are not scheduled, students just log on and they are connected to the first available tutor. It is sort of like a call center..if no one is available they will get a message saying that someone will be with them shortly.
  3. I am pretty sure that the software is developed by tutor.com. We simply download from their website to our home computers; the same way you would download Limewire or Mozilla.
  4. We definitely steer away from 'teaching' students, I believe based on the idea that the students were already taught and we just need to bring the information out. We usually work by getting a specific homework question from a student, and ask the student a variety of questions that help them learn it on their own. Not as difficult as it might sound :) We would first ask the student what they know, and try to build questions from that.
  5. Mostly the United States, some Canada...mostly toward the western provinces I think.
  6. I can't really think of anything off of the top of my head...I did notice sometimes though that students who seemed to not understand a question at all would fly through the whole thing with one question or comment. For example, a student may give the appearance that they do not know how to do a question, but once you question them about what they are doing in class they'll often connect and fly through the answer.

Based upon her responses, I asked a couple of follow-up questions:

  1. In your response to number 2, you stated "if no one is available they will get a message saying that someone will be with them shortly". How does that work? What I mean is how would tutor.com contact someone to get them online (because it would appear that they are not already online) to help this student?
  2. For number 6, you've never been curious about anything more in your interactions with the technology or with the students? Have you ever wondered why a student is not able to understand something when they have access to a teacher in a face to face environment, but can easily figure it out with some help in a technology-mediated environment from someone thousands of miles away? I ask because in my experience, I've found that the things that virtual school teachers (in your specific instance I guess virtual school tutors) are interested in or curious about tend to make the best research projects - probably because they are closest to the actual system and interactions, and they have the best understanding of what is going on.
Her reply was:
  1. Basically the way tutor.com works is students log on at their libraries or schools. Tutor.com has a specific number of tutors in each subject area available each hour (lets suppose that there are 40 tutors working between 6 pm and 7 pm)... If 42 students are logged on at a particular time, the first 40 would connect with a tutor and the next 2 would be waiting in line until a tutor finished a session. While they are waiting, they would get a message on their screen stating along the lines of you are waiting in queue, a tutor will be with you as soon as possible. It basically works like a call center...you connect, and are put on "hold" until a tutor is available. Usually though, the company has enough people working at one time to cover the amount of student log on. Whenever we get more than expected, they will usually schedule more tutors so that students don't really have to wait in line.
  2. As for the sixth question, I think that the technology has both really positive and negative aspects. Technology is really efficient for the student; if they don't understand concepts in class, or want to make sure they have topics down, its easier for them to log on and contact someone right away for help. In addition, tutoring online works one on one, so the tutor can solely dedicate their time to the student and involve them in the learning process. ( I suppose this might not be true if a class was being taught).

    I think that the student learning is a product of both the teacher and the tutor. As tutors, we don't teach the material, we build on what the students have learned, so the teachers are still an integral part of the process. I think that the Internet is much more convenient and practical than face to face as far as tutoring is concerned, but I also believe that teaching one on one without technology would be better for the student in many cases. That way, a rapport and understanding can develop. Over a computer, messages are often misinterpreted and email doesn't reveal facial expressions. For that reason, I really think tutor.com uses the Internet in the most effective way. We do try to show understanding (for most, it is definitely genuine), and give students an alternate way to learn, but they realize that the student was already taught the material and the Internet works best to let the student try the problem hands on.

    Another couple advantages I see in the use of technology in general is that some students who are "embarrassed" or insecure about asking questions in class do not feel as limited on the Internet and don't mind asking many questions. Also, I am a believer that students learn in a variety of ways, and technology/Internet may be the best way for some students.
I found this to be an interesting exchange that we had. Interesting enough that I went to tutor.com to find out more about them. Their website is more geared to their potential customers (i.e., the students and parents who might sign up), but I did sign up for their newsletter (and they haven't sent any out since I have subscribed).

Anyway, I thought this was an interesting set of coincidences in terms of how I became aware of this program and since it is online and primarily geared to a K-12 audience I thought that I might pass it on to you for your comments.

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