June - 2006 issue > Business
Tutoring sans Tutor-e-tuition way
By Sanjeev Jain
Thursday, June 1, 2006
When Biju Mathew came to the U.S. along with his wife and three kids from Kerala, India in 2000, he was distressed with a familiar problem that many parents face here-finding good tutors for their children. “I had tutors for my kids back in India. There was a dearth of tutors here,” Mathew says. As an old adage goes- ‘necessity is the mother of all inventions’ and true to it, unable to find quality tutors, he founded Growing Stars, a Fremont, CA based online tutoring company that tutors American students with the help of teachers located 9000 miles away in Cochin, the capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Today the company with 50 teachers in India and some 400 students in the U.S. is part of a new wave of BPO- e-tuitions or online tutoring and India is in the lime light as most of the e-tuitions happen from India or to be precise, small towns that dot the country’s highways. If cheap, skilled labor, and intelligent techies brought technology work to India, it’s the ingenious teachers in India who are snatching western tutors’ jobs. Blame it on high dropout rates and unwillingness on the part of people to take up low paying teaching jobs in the U.S. that has prompted Growing Stars and two other tutor firms- Tutor Vista and Career Launcher-both based in India- to go online. “Heavy dropout rates are a concern in the U.S.,” says K. Ganesh, the CEO of Tutor Vista. Added to the dropout rates are other concerns that make e-tuition from India a probability and possibility-expensive teachers. Teachers in the U.S. have become scarce and expensive and “this is leading to a teacher-student ratio of 1:30 when the ideal set up should be 1:20,” Ganesh says. This leads to an imbalance in studies.

As a drastic measure, parents here, with a need for personalized education, have started hiring tutoring companies like these to make up for the loss in schools. Hiring them isn’t’ just cost effective, they are as close to one-to-one teaching as one would experience in classrooms. “The best part is the student never tires of learning online. The teaching is as effective as one would expect in a classroom,” says Ganesh. “Three things that make online tutoring exciting is a live tutor, content and technology to make education effortless.” “Virtual whiteboard and shared resources on the Internet makes it an interesting business,” says Anirudh Phadke, Prinicipal Consultant, e learning, Career Launcher, a New Delhi, India based e-tutoring company.

As U.S. does not have a single countrywide curriculum unlike the U.K. or India, and education is a state priority, content, mostly Mathematics, English and Science are generated in house by these e-tutorials. Poor Mathematics, English and Science skills among U.S. teachers- a fact endorsed by Phadke. “Indian teachers have the inbuilt affinity to mathematics and science,” Phadke adds. According to a survey, 40 percent of seventh graders in the U.S. flunk in Mathematics and English subject exams and this has resulted in huge demands for online tutors.

It’s not just cost arbitrage or skills of the Indian teachers that has fuelled the e-tutorial business. This business received a boost in 2001 when the Bush administration passed the NCLB Act (No Child Left Behind Act) that aims to improve the grades of the American student. The government aims to fund students to the tune of $1200 per student per annum. However the schools associated with NCLB programs have contracted none of these Indian companies.

Since Indian tutoring firms charge less, $10-30 per hour as opposed to American firms that charge anywhere between $80-100 per hour, the business is surging in India. “For anywhere between $10-20, a very high quality education can be provided from India,” says Phadke.

Tutor Vista has actually pulled a coup of sorts by charging $100 per month for unlimited tutoring. Indian trade body Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) says the online tutoring market in India can grow at 46 percent annually till 2017 considering that the online-tutoring market in India currently stands at $10 million while in the U.S. it is a $5 billion market.

The Indian online tutoring companies today have operations in almost half of the U.S. While Tutor Vista has operations in 26 states, other like Career Launcher and Growing Stars too teach students in almost similar number of states. Despite a wider distribution and thousands of students, the quality has never been compromised. “One teachers teaches only student and there’s no question of trading that teacher with other teachers as the teacher grows closer to the students and that’s a big business,” says Mathew. This brings in a kind of good network between the students and the teachers and even the parents feel comfortable as their children study in the comfort of their homes.

For these companies, targeting the mass market, business mostly comes from students who study in grades between 9-12 and who are the most susceptible to examination blues. As competition looms large from Asian and European countries whose children are outsmarting American students in almost every sphere of education, there’s more pressure on the Americans to be one up.

For Indian teachers, online tutoring is a supplement for good income sitting at home and keeping in touch with their skills. Improved telecom network, falling broadband Internet and computer prices have helped fully trained teachers-some staying in smaller towns and cities of the country- jump into the bandwagon.

However one major drawback with the Indian teachers has been with the accent though medium of language remains English. Vernacular speakers speak English with a heavy dose of mother tongue put in that at times cannot be understood by a person sitting thousands of miles away. So the voice based online tutorials have trained teachers in accent. “There’s not much problem with accent today. Trainers are available and teachers easily get accustomed to the accent pretty fast,” says Ganesh. “We look at teachers with good communication skills and five years of experience,” Phadke adds.

Now that the business is growing and with no dearth of qualified teachers, the business throws promises one cannot ignore. It’s time for the entrepreneurs to earn while students learn.
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