Leo Shmuylovich knows a lot about how tutoring can take a student from confused to confident.
The Washington University graduate student has worked as a tutor for several test-preparation companies over the years, helping St. Louis-area high school students prepare for college-entrance exams.
In that time, he noticed that similar problems hindered many students working on math and science concepts.
“All the students had the same issues coming up,” he said. “One key step confused everyone.”
Now, Mr. Shmuylovich has launched his own idea for adapting tutoring in the digital age. And Washington University’s Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies has taken notice, awarding him and his business partner its highest prize for student-led entrepreneurial ventures.
Working with his friend, graphic designer Josh Salcman, Mr. Shmuylovich created Virtual Nerd. The tutoring subscription service, found at virtualnerd.com, uses hundreds of online videos similar to those on YouTube to guide students visually through math and physics concepts, such as expressions, polynomials, and factoring a trinomial.
What is Virtual Nerd?
SOURCE: Virtual Nerd
“I’ve had a lot of people who say, ‘I’m not a math person,’ ” Mr. Shmuylovich said. “But I think that everyone is built to do math.”
Options for Students
Mr. Shmuylovich and Mr. Salcman wanted to offer tutoring services that could be tailored to students’ needs without being prohibitively expensive. The service costs about $40 a month, a sum that might buy only an hour or two of face-to-face tutoring time from more-traditional services.
Virtual Nerd is part of a rapidly growing tutoring industry, which is estimated by some measures to exceed $3.4 billion each year. Those who praise the concept say it fits perfectly within the needs of that marketplace.
“I think that students are obviously becoming more virtual in a lot of the things they do,” said Ken Harrington, the managing director of the Skandalaris Center, adding that Virtual Nerd makes the technology friendly.
This month, Education Week began a special technology feature that will appear in every issue of the newspaper, covering news, trends, and ideas about digital learning and administrative uses of tech tools in schools.
Read the winter issue of Education Week Digital Directions to learn more about digital tools for customizing learning, the role of e-learning in personalizing education, teacher use of whiteboards, Twitter in the classroom, and student perspectives about how schools could use technology more effectively.
The service gives students the option of using its hundreds of videos to zero in on a concept they are struggling with. For example, students may want to use the service to learn to multiply binomials using the “Firsts, Outers, Inners, Lasts,” or foil, method for solving such a problem. One video demonstrates how to use that method.But students who get lost along the way can click on more-basic concepts, such as a video explaining what a binomial is. Typically, every video links to dozens of others, allowing students to customize their own lessons.
The program was tested last year at Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis, where 100 freshmen used it for three weeks before a physics exam.
Sudesh Shah, a freshman-physics teacher, said that the program used her papers and test questions and made tutorials to fit. “They really helped,” she said. Students who used the program before the exam “had a great improvement in their grades. I was quite impressed.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Need Help With Math? Watch the Virtual Nerd