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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

E-Tutoring: Need Help? Go Online

More and more schools are looking to online tutoring as a way to help students.
By Tamar Snyder

Students struggling to master academic subjects no longer have to poke their hands in the air, stay after class, or hire an expensive tutor. Instead, they can go online.

A crop of e-tutoring services has sprung up in recent years, offering inexpensive online alternatives to in-person educational tutoring. Most of these sites cater to parents, who sign up their children for live, on-demand tutoring sessions. The students communicate with certified educators through email, instant messaging (IM) programs, and even online chat. In some cases, tutors can help students solve problems by drawing on a shared interactive whiteboard.

Help for Underachieving Schools

But it's not only parents who benefit from this burgeoning set of e-tutors. Poor-performing school districts are increasingly signing up with these online services to provide remedial and after-school instruction for students. "My students were bored, confused, and resistant to math, because they had never done well in the subject," notes Barbara Shoap, a math teacher at Philadelphia's George Washington High School. In January 2007, Shoap began using Apangea Learning's online math tutoring program, SmartHelp. (Editor's Note: SmartHelp is no longer produced by Apangea, but it has evolved into another product called Apangea Math.)

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory originally designed SmartHelp as part of its effort to use intelligent tutoring technology to improve soldiers' skills. The service allows teachers to customize animated lessons and math problems that focus on basic math, algebra, and everything in between, all based on state standards and student performance levels. SmartHelp breaks down abstract math problems into more understandable steps. Students choose an avatar, a computer-generated learning coach, who automatically pops up with instant feedback and helpful formulas.

"They pick a coach they can relate to based on gender and ethnicity," explains Matthew Hausmann, vice president of marketing at Apangea Learning. "It allows them to personalize the experience, which makes them buy into it a bit more." SmartHelp costs about $90 per student each year, in addition to development costs.

Turning Math into a Game

SmartHelp is modeled after the give-and-take of video games, which many students are already wild about. Students have a life meter associated with their online account, and every time they ask for help, a portion of it gets eaten up. If they use up the entire life meter, the students have to do another round of problems. Those who continue to struggle get help from a live tutor, a certified teacher, who not only chats with students online but also can draw on a virtual whiteboard.

"The question students ask me most often is, 'Are you real?'" admits Sara Byrne, a tutor with Apangea Learning, who works with four students at a time in the company's Pittsburgh office. "So many students can't grasp that an actual human being is helping them. So I tell them what I had for lunch."

A Growing Industry

As more students become eligible for free tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act, educators increasingly see e-tutoring as an affordable and convenient way to boost performance. It's no surprise, then, that the online tutoring industry is expected to generate $28 billion in revenue during the 2008-09 school year, according to Eduventures, an education-consulting firm. Some e-tutoring companies, including TutorVista, are even outsourcing instruction to India.

Among the popular sites, Tutor.com charges $30 for a fifty-minute session, while Homeworkhelp.com offers a month of unlimited lessons for the same price and yearly access for $175. Not all e-tutoring services function the same way or provide the same benefits, so experts say matching a student's needs with what the site offers is critical.

Do They Work?

When used effectively, e-tutoring can allow overworked special education teachers to transform into efficient facilitators of students' individual progress. But how effective are e-tutoring services such as SmartHelp? Nationwide studies don't exist yet, but according to a 2005-06 study conducted by Pennsylvania 4Sight Benchmark Assessment, 53 percent of Pennsylvania students showed improvement using online education-assistance tutoring. School districts using SmartHelp showed improvements higher than the state average. For example, in the Athens Area School District, student gains topped 87 percent, and of the eighty-nine Quakertown students who failed tenth-grade math, 72 percent are now getting A's, B's, or C's in their junior year.

Although it's too early to tell how effective SmartHelp has been for Barbara Shoap's students, she feels it has already provided one big benefit: Her kids now come to class motivated about math. Some even visit the site over the weekend to rack up Smart Points, which they can redeem for iTunes gift cards and other prizes. (In the past, Shoap's students enjoyed a pizza party as a reward for their progress.) And Shoap has more time for individual attention. "They no longer have to trade in their ID cards for pencils, which they used to forget every day," she points out. "I don't have to distribute replacement math worksheets or stop the lesson for late arrivals anymore."

SmartHelp works well for students who have trouble reading, because it reads the questions back to them, and they can adjust the speed. It's also beneficial for English as a Second Language students, because the site can translate questions into eight languages. "We had two international students, and we used the math program to do language remediation," says Kris Rushman, a secondary tutoring coordinator with the Cornell School District, in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania. "Now, that's bang for your buck."

Technology That Inspires

The program's high-score list has also become a motivator. One teacher recalled spotting her generally unmotivated summer school students toggling back and forth between Web pages. She came over to investigate. One of the ninth graders elbowed his friend and boasted, "I'm kicking your butt." It turns out that they'd been switching between the pages to see who was in the lead after completing each math problem.

"Kids are so technologically oriented," states Kathy Keyes, an algebra teacher with the Salado Independent School District, in Salado, Texas. "Texting back and forth, iPods -- this is what they're used to."

In addition to helping students master math, reading, and other subjects, e-tutoring software makes it easier for principals and teachers to print out progress reports to satisfy state reporting requirements.

And in many cases, it's cost effective. The Cornell School District reduced the number of faculty at its after-school remedial program from eight teachers to only two. "At times, I think it threatens math teachers in that they're being replaced by a machine," admits Rushman. "But they still need the human element for reinforcement. I'll walk around the room and pat students on the shoulder. Sometimes, that's all they need."

Tamar Snyder is a writer in New York City who specializes in education, personal finance, and careers.

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