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Published in Print: February 16, 2000, as Online Tutors Say They've Got the Answers

Online Tutors Say They've Got the Answers

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Kristen Riley was having trouble understanding one of the minor characters in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. With a project due the next day for her English class, which required her to take on the role of Wemmick, she needed some deeper insight into the character. And she needed it fast.

So the 10th grade honors student at Ocean City High School in New Jersey did what she normally does when she needs help with an assignment and doesn't have time to consult with teachers or classmates: She logged on to the Internet and linked to an online tutor.

Cyber-Tutors
Here are several of the tutoring services available through the Internet:
America Online: Homework rooms for various grade levels and subjects are staffed with online tutors most weeknights and during some weekend hours. Students can link to the chat rooms by using the keywords "homework" or "Ask A Teacher." The service is free for AOL customers.
Algebra Online: Free online tutoring and information service in algebra.
Go Math Online Tutoring: Free online help in mathematics for K-12 students.
Tutor.com: Provides a database of tutors offering online and face-to-face services in academic and nonacademic subjects. Tutors set own hourly rates, which can range from $15 to $200.
www.1800Tutors.com: Provides a database of tutors offering online and face-to-face tutoring. Expects to launch a database of online tutors later this year. Tutors set own hourly rates, which can range from $15 to $200.
TopTutors.com: Connects students with tutors in various subjects both online and by Internet-linked phone. Headsets and software provided. Costs $39 per one-hour session, with most students needing five to nine sessions.

Within minutes of checking into a chat room devoted to high school English, a teacher pointed her to excerpts in the book that give clues about the essence of the obscure clerk, suggested World Wide Web sites with analyses of the novel, and provided some tips for playing the role. The session helped Ms. Riley earn a top grade on the assignment last fall.

Like Ms. Riley, thousands of other Internet-savvy students are taking advantage of a growing number of online tutoring services and homework-help sites that connect them with encyclopedias and subject-area links, or with teachers, college students, or software programs to answer specific questions.

But while many of the students—and their parents—seem generally pleased with the services, little is known about their effect on academic performance. And some child-safety advocates worry that such services may be ripe for misuse by adults who prey on minors.

Loyal Audiences

"I use the [online tutors] when I'm having trouble with homework or I need a critique of an essay," said Ms. Riley, who primarily relies on America Online's Ask A Teacher site. "They find out what you need, and then give excellent help."

For Ms. Riley, that means logging on a few times a month for guidance in English, science, and Spanish. Her brother, John, a 6th grader, finds similar help with his social studies and science homework.

The AOL site, which has chat rooms for subjects at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, claims 5,000 young visitors each week.

Newer and lesser-known sites have also found loyal audiences among students adept at using the Web as a resource for completing schoolwork.

"As more and more students have access to the Internet at home and at school ... services like this are growing rapidly," said Linda Roberts, the director of the U.S. Department of Education's office of technology.

The keyword "tutoring" brings up dozens of sites on major Web browsers. They range from highly structured services linked to corporate sites to a more homespun variety run by teachers and students.

The services offer a variety of options, including one-on-one interaction with teachers via computer, referrals for face-to-face tutoring in regions throughout the country, and links to sites with lessons and resources on thousands of topics.

AOL, which has more than 1,200 volunteer tutors to answer students' queries within a few minutes to a few hours, has been providing the free tutoring service for customers for years. But most tutoring sites are brand-new ventures, or expanded services offered by established education-oriented companies.

GoMath.com, for example, launched its free service last October. Other services, with names like Tutor.com, 1800Tutors.com, and TopTutors.com, have all cropped up within the past year or so. Many of the sites answer students' queries within a day or two.

But with a dizzying array of Internet-based resources providing nearly immediate help in finding needed answers and gathering background information, students spoiled by the speed of cyberspace rarely want to wait that long.

Internet entrepreneurs are taking heed and making plans to enhance and expedite their services.

By spring, GoMath, a service sponsored by Cubic Science, a software company, will expand and begin offering immediate contact with tutors. Tutor.com and 1800Tutors.com Inc., which offer a database of private tutors willing to conduct face-to-face sessions with students for hourly fees, are also adding online services.

Unlike AOL and GoMath, other companies are betting that customers are willing to pay for tutors, who set rates that range from $15 to $200 an hour for students from kindergarten through college for both online and face-to-face meetings.

"After we launched our site, we learned that about half the people wanted a tutor online," said George Cigale, the president of Tutor.com, which is a partner of the Princeton Review, a well- known test-preparation company.

Tutor.com, which until now has been a database of 8,000 tutors almost exclusively advertising face-to-face instruction, launched its fastMatch service last month to link tutors to students online.

"The real push has been to provide a way for someone to easily find a tutor according to their criteria and connect with them immediately," Mr. Cigale said.

Safety Issues

As with any consumer service, and particularly with Internet offerings, the Education Department's Ms. Roberts warns that the user should beware.

"There are important questions to ask of any service," she said. "The more responsible [tutoring sites] use qualified teachers, they do a lot of training of their tutors, and ... they provide support materials."

Experts concerned about children's safety on the Internet also suggest that tutoring services should take steps to screen out potential criminals.

Though there have been no known reports of tutors trying to take advantage of students they meet online, such sites could provide backdoor access to children, said Ruben D. Rodriguez, the director of the exploited-child unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In the past two years, the center's cyber-tip hot line has received more than 14,000 tips of possible cases of child abuse and exploitation that were initiated via the Internet.

"You can be anyone you want on the Internet," Mr. Rodriguez said. "It is an anonymous medium ... a perfect environment for pedophiles."

America Online's Ask A Teacher program requires tutors to submit to lengthy academic- and criminal-background checks, and their interaction with and responses to children are overseen by a room monitor. AOL also provides preservice training for tutors and monthly staff meetings to allow volunteers to discuss problems and share ideas.

Verification of teaching qualifications and references are common for other sites as well, but few screen tutors for any potential red flags in their dealings with children.

Some services are working to lessen the risk of linking children with potential predators by providing the tutors with the services of investigative agencies to verify their clean records—if they so choose to undergo the background checks at their own expense.

Most sites, however, do not require a search of tutors' criminal histories, leaving it up to students and their parents to ask such questions.

"Many parents have requested background checks, and we tell our tutors that if they have had a background check, they are more likely to get clients," Mr. Cigale said.

Cyber-Classroom

The new medium has other trouble spots to work out as well. A review of homework and tutoring sites by The New York Times last month found many of them to be impressive, but said some were difficult to navigate, had lengthy response times, or were disappointing in content. The reviewer, Alice Keim, also found "that it is easy to get almost too much help—good news for the student who needs a quick fix and potentially bad news for parents and teachers."

Ms. Keim said that online tutors may not be able to separate those students truly in need from those who are simply looking for an easy way out of homework. Besides, she wrote, students cannot be certain that the information and advice they receive is correct, although some site sponsors have gone to great lengths to ensure accuracy.

Evidence on whether tutoring online makes an academic difference for students remains largely anecdotal. The relatively new phenomenon has yet to undergo the scrutiny of independent research.

Some studies on the effect of face-to-face tutoring, while somewhat dated, suggest a number of key factors in the most effective programs, including appropriate and ongoing training of instructors, consistent and regular interaction between tutors and students, and a connection with classroom teachers. But those findings may not translate well into tutoring's growing cyberworld.

Online tutors, for example, generally don't know the identities or academic backgrounds of the students they are counseling. Often they will work with them only once or twice, or sporadically on different topics or projects. Thus, it may be hard to develop the kind of personal relationship that is commonly seen as a big advantage of more traditional tutoring.

But students who have grown up with online technology are often comfortable communicating by keyboard. And promoters of the sites point to their popularity as proof that they are beneficial.

Mary Frances Riley, Kristen Riley's mother and a kindergarten teacher at Ocean City Primary School, agrees. The chat rooms, she argues, are similar to classrooms, despite the lack of furniture and the physical distance separating participants.

The elder Ms. Riley was a tutor in the Ask A Teacher elementary reading room for the past two years. During that stint, she volunteered four hours or more a week during the evening hours, when the chat room is usually "full" of curious and confused students seeking help.

Ms. Riley said it was easy to get to know students who repeatedly sought assistance; she became adept at recognizing the phrasing and frequency of their questions, or their focus on a particular topic.

Teachers trained to spot troublemakers in the classroom can easily do so online as well, she said.

The occasional class clown will ask for a date, type zzzz's on screen to indicate boredom, or submit a facetious question such as "Where do babies come from?" Unlike in a regular classroom, though, the teacher can end the session and ban the errant typist permanently, Ms. Riley said.

Overall, she said, the help room is a lively, friendly place full of students eager to learn and teachers eager to help.

"It's like I'm an invisible teacher, and the rewards are similar to what I get from teaching," Ms. Riley said of her volunteer experience. "When you are working with a child who doesn't understand something, and then you see the light bulb go off ... it makes you very happy for that child."

Vol. 19, Issue 23, Pages 1,12-13

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