Internet Instructors

With India emerging as a knowledge hub of sorts, we look ata a successful, Indian-origins e-learning firm in the US, which provides coaching to school and college students

Young Indian and far-east Asian students in the United States are sincere and hard-working, they pay their credit card bills in full each month, and they’re very good at maths. There are some SAT and GRE statistics to validate that last point, but it is, ultimately, a stereotype. As it happens, it’s a very popular one: Americans seem to genuinely believe that this demographic is “smart,” as they put it. A rather nice image to possess, actually. It doesn’t hurt.

In fact, it seems to have helped the cause of TutorVista (, an online tutoring and test-prep company founded in Bangalore and brought to the United States in late 2005-services are now also offered in Britain. They provide one-on-one coaching to K12 and college students, both undergraduate and graduate, in a variety of subjects, and charge considerably less than the competition-in effect making such instruction that much less of a luxury. That’s “bachelors level” and “post-graduate level” in Indian terms. “K12” refers to Kindergarten through to the 12th standard in Indian terms.

It can’t have been easy for an Indian firm to have achieved a credible position in the US market. But the stereotype helped.

Ask Krishnan Ganesh, founder, chairman, and CEO. His team’s initial research in the US-without which they wouldn’t have spent “a single dollar” on the project-gave them the go-ahead because of “the ‘nerdy’ image and success of Indians in the school and college education system in the US.”

Going beyond what helped and what didn’t, what makes for good e-learning at the K12 and college levels? First and most important, tutors must be competent and well-trained, and sensitive to students’ needs. Which leads to point number two: one-on-one coaching is immensely desirable. Even outside of e-learning, it’s always been sought-after by parents, and it’s traditionally expensive. With the Internet, as Ganesh and co. have proved, it need not be, and that’s #3-affordability. Then, the interface and session scheduling should be student-friendly. And last but not least, when you cut across continents, student and teacher understanding each other becomes an issue, small or big.

How It Works
We’ve perhaps jumped the gun a bit: how does one-on-one e-learning work? It’s simple, really. At TutorVista, for just one example, the student chooses a plan-either $19.99 per hour of coaching, or $99.99 per month for unlimited tutoring. Then, an evaluation test determines the strong and weak areas of the student, and therefore, what precisely the learning sessions will attempt at achieving. In fact, TutorVista says their programmes are customised to ensure more time is spent targeting students’ problem areas.

Students can then schedule sessions for any time they want; as the company says, “it’s like having a tutor in their home or dorm 24×7.” Any parent’s dream.

During the session, student and teacher use headsets, and what is called a “whiteboard.” This is an area of the screen where both can write on; whatever is written by one will be visible to the other, and vice-versa. Writing is accomplished via a graphics tablet. The student may also choose to use IM; communication thus happens via keyboard, mouse, tablet, microphone, and headphones. In addition, students have access to worksheets, lessons, practice tests, question banks, and animations. There’s also a toll-free fax number so students can show tutors printouts of their work.

Coming to the Internet connection, one needs a high-speed line, and these are found at libraries and “civic centres” all over the US.
This Side Of The Book
We said earlier that tutors must be competent and well-trained. TutorVista ensures this. Experienced tutors with graduate degrees and the appropriate teaching credentials are considered, and are subsequently trained by TutorVista. There is an extensive online recruitment process that includes testing and interviews. A job offer is made only after would-be tutors complete training and the certification process. Recruiting and hiring a tutor “takes anywhere between three to five weeks,” Ganesh says.

The company’s tutors are located in India, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. That is how TutorVista manages to keep its prices so low. Ganesh makes no bones about it: “Prices are lower than (that of) the same service from the US or Europe since we leverage global resources from geographies wherein teaching resources are readily available and allow lower cost due to lower cost of living.” Get them from where they come cheap, train them to world standards, and you have a winning formula.

Outsourcing as in call centres may have gotten a bad name in some areas: in a 2003 edition of Dr. Dobb’s Journal, the editor-at-large cautioned the readership to call customer support (for software products) at hours when they would get “real, qualified engineers.” He didn’t go so far as to specifically say “American,” but we got the idea.

It’s very different here. Ganesh relates: “We did research with 25 parents and kids in the US before deciding to start this service and investing our first dollar on this project. The results were positive and gave us clues to what the consumers thought. Two thirds were neutral, and one third were actually positive about being taught by Indians. These 25 were not Indian / Asian-origin US citizens: they were local US citizens. One of them said they would never let an Indian coach their kid on sports, but on education, he welcomed it!”

Old Way, Tech Way
Here in India, we’re used to classrooms bursting at the hinges of the door-perhaps 120 or 150 students packed into a lecture hall. It’s different in America, for a variety of reasons. Undergraduate classrooms typically host about 30, 40, or 50 students. Note that this is an average figure; the actual numbers vary wildly-from 15 to 150 by some accounts. At the graduate level, you might even see 10 or 15 students in a class. Or sometimes even five!

Then there’s the T-word: practically all 10th and 12th-standard students here “go to tuition,” as we say. There’s a similar concept in the US-“learning centres.” At typical learning centres, a few students congregate in a room with a teacher, computer, and projector, for lessons specifically geared towards improving grades. The key word here is “few,” and that’s why tutoring at learning centres is expensive.

One-on-one coaching is even more expensive. Make no mistake about it: grades are as important in the US as marks are here, even if the education system is vastly different. And like we mentioned, TutorVista makes one-on-one affordable. That is Ganesh’s vision: “We want to make personalised education affordable, and that our service should be part of every home’s monthly budget through a subscription based, ‘always-on’ kind of model.”

The 1:1 ratio is the ideal, and it has always been. We don’t need to explain why. As in so many areas, technology has been thrown at the problem, and one-on-one might one day become the norm instead of a luxury. TutorVista deserves mention even if only for making personalised coaching affordable to the majority of Americans.

But Ganesh goes a step further: he says Internet learning can be more effective than even face-to-face learning! It is appropriate here to also quote Roger Schank, director of the Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwestern University: “The best things technology has given training are the possibility of one-on-one for every learner, the ability to simulate, and the chance to try stuff out and fail in private without the fear of ridicule from other students.”

I Say Tuh-Mah-Toe, You Say…
Banking call centre employees, as an example, are taught American and British accents partly to make it sound to the caller that he or she is speaking to a native English speaker, which makes him or her more comfortable. But when it comes to something more personal and more long-term like education, it’s a more vital question-that of accent not interfering with the learning process.

TutorVista trains tutors not only with regards to accent, but also in communication skills. Also, says Ganesh, the fact that the talk time by the tutor is only 20 per cent of the total session time makes it less of an issue. “Most of the time, the student is either thinking or writing on the whiteboard or speaking. Also, since the same tutor works with the student, student and tutor get used to (each other’s) accents.”

In addition, at the time of recruiting, TutorVista also ensures that the tutor’s accent is good enough for him or her to be able to communicate with US and/or UK students.

Accent is a relatively small issue the company faced. Ganesh sums up some of the others thus: “We deliver real-time, live sessions to thousands of students and to thousands of tutors concurrently. Handling this requires a strong-scalable platform, which is unique. We had to build this from scratch. Also, being a consumer brand, we needed to establish an image in the minds of consumers, unlike other e-learning companies that work with the corporate customer rather than directly with consumers.

“Internet learning can be more effective than face-to-face learning”
Krishnan Ganesh, Founder, chairman, and CEO, TutorVista

Now And Onward
In November 2006, TutorVista was named the exclusive online tutoring provider for Microsoft’s MSN Encarta online education portal.  The deal calls for MSN Encarta to actively market TutorVista’s services throughout the Encarta portal.

Then, TutorVista offers free online tutoring sessions to public school students of all ages in America’s top 10 poorest, most rural counties. “We opened TutorVista in the US because we saw school systems failing America’s poorest rural students, teachers and parents on a number of levels,” explains Ganesh.  How is the market for one-on-one tutoring poised to grow? Exponentially, according to Ganesh. But it “needs the right business model. We believe that subscription- based mass-market pricing will be the key for future growth.” TutorVista also has plans to venture into the Australian, Canadian, and, yes, the Indian e-learning markets. They are also looking at launching an English-language service for Chinese and Korean students. With India getting to be known as an “educational hotbed,” there’s good reason to believe their new ventures will find acceptance.

We’ll be keenly watching to see how one-on-one e-learning for school and college kids might work out in this country. TutorVista may have worked it all out for American and the other markets, but it’s a little different here. Parents’ perceptions, Internet bandwidth and connection performance, and very high cost sensitivity come to mind.

Still, marks will be marks; what ultimately matters is performance on paper. If the firm can work out how to boost students’ exam performance given the ridiculous levels of competition here-with precision levels reaching one mark per 500 or more-it’ll be one more success story.

Ram Mohan Rao