Student Achievement

India Becoming Online Hub for Tutoring U.S. Students

By Vaishali Honawar — November 08, 2005 7 min read
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It is 8 a.m., and the city of Kochi is beginning a new day. The aroma of boiling rice wafts through the open windows of apartments on side streets, and children in uniform haul backpacks heavy with books to school.

But inside the third floor of a gray and white building, tutors have been at work for nearly four hours, sitting at their computers inside small, partitioned cubicles. A sign outside the door reads, “Growing Stars Infotech Limited: A subsidiary of Growing Stars Inc., California, U.S.A.”

Bindu Sudheep, dressed in an embroidered tunic with a long, matching scarf draped around her shoulders, is about to start her third session of the day. A sandalwood dot on her forehead signifies her faith, and a red one, her married status. She closes her eyes to say a brief, silent prayer to the two framed Hindu deities on her computer keyboard, then adjusts her headphones and flips through a math textbook used by 10th graders in the United States.

“Darrow, how are you? Did you go through your questions?” she opens, voice soft but firm.

Sitting at her computer in Kochi, India, Bindu Sudheep uses headphones, a pen mouse, and a writing tablet to tutor Darrow Feldstein, a 10th grader at Beverly Hills High School in California. The fee for the service is about a third of the cost for tutors stateside.

Nearly 9,000 miles away, in California, Darrow Feldstein, a music-loving 15-year-old at Beverly Hills High School, has just returned from school. He watches his computer as Ms. Sudheep scribbles a math problem for him, using whiteboard technology that links up their computers via the Internet so they can see the same screen.

For the next hour, tutor and student work their way together through a maze of high school math. Using a pen mouse and a writing tablet, Ms. Sudheep poses questions, guides Darrow in a calm voice when he makes a mistake, and praises him profusely when he answers correctly.

Welcome to the world of outsourced tutoring and the Indian operation of Growing Stars, a firm that now provides tutoring services to 350 American children.

India, home to a large population of educated English speakers and software engineers, has in the past few years positioned itself as an outsourcing center for American businesses. Call centers there now provide banking and medical transcription, among other services.

Firms like Growing Stars are taking the concept a step further.

Growing Stars opened last year and offers tutoring in math, science, and English for students in grades 3-12. Like Ms. Sudheep, most of the 32 teachers are based here in Kochi, although the company recently hired a handful of tutors in the United States to teach English.

Getting Results

The company’s growth has been rapid: Starting with just 10 students and four tutors, Growing Stars has expanded almost monthly since, and now has operations in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. At least half a dozen other companies in India now offer similar tutoring services.

U.S. parents who have signed up say they have been pleased with the results.

Lisa Greer, Darrow Feldstein’s mother, said her son, an otherwise bright student, used to make B’s and C’s in math. But within weeks of starting with Growing Stars, he got his first A.

“I had tried several tutors here before, and my children found them all nerds,” said Ms. Greer, who also has enrolled her 6th grade daughter. So impressed was she with her children’s progress that she has decided to continue with the tutoring for the rest of the school year.

Another likely attraction for parents is the price: While it could cost $50 or $60 an hour to hire a tutor locally, Indian companies charge between $15 and $20 for each one-hour session.

Controversy Knocks

Biju Mathew, the co-founder of Growing Stars, lives in Fremont, Calif. He was looking for a tutor for his children in 2003 and found that one-on-one instruction was not readily available at an affordable price. Mr. Mathew started thinking of hiring a teacher in his native India. “I knew there are a lot of highly qualified teachers there,” he said.

He was head-on. While Growing Stars sets high standards for its tutors—each one must have a master’s in the subject he or she teaches and a teaching degree—there is no dearth of applicants in Kochi. Each ad for a tutor yields 200 applications, said Bina George, the firm’s manager of human resources and administration. The tutors hired, she said, also have strong communication skills.

Tutors are also given periodic classes to help them polish their accents so that American students can better understand them.Each day, tutors take time to prepare themselves in their students’ curricula, and academic directors closely supervise all the tutors.

Still, online tutoring has been sucked into a maelstrom of controversy.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools must offer free after-school tutoring services after being judged in need of improvement for three consecutive years. Nine members of Congress, objecting to the possibility that federal money would benefit offshore tutors, asked the Government Accountability Office in April to examine how many tuition providers are outsourcing services to overseas tutors. That report is not yet ready.

Mr. Mathew’s company has been approved by the California education department to provide such services, but districts there further require that tutors get criminal-background checks.

“We have not yet figured out a way to do that,” Mr. Mathew said. Satisfying that requirement is low on his company’s list of priorities, he added, because it already has its hands full with the current demand for tutors from individual parents.

The American Federation of Teachers, which also objects to the use of federal funds for offshore tutors, argues that tutors should be well versed in U.S. curricula—a standard, the union believes, such tutors might not be able to meet.

“The general advice you’d want to give parents is that you want to make sure tutors know their subject area, know state expectations, and standards and schools,” said John See, an AFT spokesman.

He pointed to other possible drawbacks of online tutoring. “When you go online, you set up obstacles. … You can’t get a sense of whether a child gets it or not,” he said.

A Learning Opportunity

Most of the Growing Stars tutors in India, who originally planned to be teachers, say they find the one-on-one experience rewarding, not least because of the opportunity to interact with children from a different culture.

But the job does have one catch: the early hours. Many tutors choose to live in hostels nearby, commuting to stay with families on weekends.

Kochi is the largest city and business capital of the south Indian state of Kerala, the country’s only state with 100 percent literacy. Higher education here is highly subsidized by the government but job opportunities are few and it is not uncommon to find engineers driving buses.

After marriage, women often choose to stay home rather than work.

Ms. Sudheep, 24, said that when she decided to take the job, she was worried what her in-laws would think about her going to work before her husband. “I was expected to be home, ready with coffee and breakfast, when he goes to work,” she said. Now, she said, “my husband wakes up early to get coffee for me.”

There are other benefits. Tutors at Growing Stars are paid 10,000 rupees to 15,000 rupees monthly ($220 to $330), nearly twice what they would have earned as teachers. That’s not all.

“The workload is also much lesser,” said Nisha Alex, a spokeswoman for Growing Stars. “Tutors have a chance to develop a more personal rapport with students.”

Prabha Narath says she works on building close relationships with all her students. She describes one American student as “the bubbliest girl alive.”

“She always keeps up a running commentary, asks me about our festivals here, tells me about herself,” Ms. Narath said, adding that their interaction has made her want to visit the United States.

Parents like Carolyn Ingram from Garfield, Ark., say their children, too, find the experience enriching.

Her 14-year-old daughter, Michaela, she said, has struck up a deep friendship with her tutor, Anu Titus. The two often talk about their own, very different backgrounds, and have exchanged photographs and gifts.

“Anu teaches her about the culture and lifestyle in India, broadening her horizons,” Ms. Ingram said.

For both students and teachers, there are adjustments, however. Darrow Feldstein said getting used to a tutor without a face was “weird.” So was getting used to hearing a foreign accent over the Internet from Ms. Sudheep, who uses Jennifer as her outsourcing moniker. But within a week, said the sophomore from Beverly Hills High, those problems seemed to disappear. Now he finds the whole concept “quite cool.”

In Kochi, academic director Leela Bai Nair, who spent 23 years as a teacher in the schools here, was stunned when a U.S. student addressed her by her first name. But, she added, she put it down to cultural differences rather than a lack of respect.

“Now,” Ms. Nair said, “I’d be surprised if someone addresses me as ‘ma’am.’ ”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as India Becoming Online Hub for Tutoring U.S. Students

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