A Tour of Online Tutors

When help from a tutor is needed to aid a child's academic growth, the Internet provides parents and teachers especially those in areas where it is difficult to find qualified instructors with many more options than ever. The stand-alone services reviewed here all provide online, real-time, one-on-one tutoring in core subject areas over the Internet. Some require students to install software (which is provided as part of the service), others function through a standard Web browser. All five services require tutors to have college experience; while some only use licensed and certified teachers, others use graduate students and other professionals as tutors. All the companies conduct background checks of the tutors they employ.

For this first look at online tutoring services, we chose these five specifically because at press time each qualified as a "supplemental service" under No Child Left Behind (however this is subject to change).

Brainfuse (Trustforte Educational Services)

Brainfuse offers remediation and homework assistance in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies to students in grades three through college. Not all Brainfuse tutors are state-certified teachers (some are graduate students or experienced academic tutors); however, every tutor must undergo an interview process that includes an academic credential review, background and reference checks, skills testing, personal references, and training.

Students and tutors have three modes for communication. In a typical session, students log on, then ask questions either by typing an instant message or speaking into the microphone. The tutor responds by typing or speaking, and a virtual blackboard allows both students and tutors to clarify points with diagrams and drawings.

Schools have flexibility in the hours they elect to make the service available from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., for example. Within those hours, eligible students will have unlimited access to consult with a tutor as many times as they need. Students also have the option of scheduling regular sessions with the same tutor, who sends weekly progress reports to parents.

One particular strength of the Brainfuse offering is the availability of several tutoring products tailored to specific groups of students. ACCESS provides one-on-one tutoring for learning-disabled students with instructors who have graduate-level training in special education. For gifted and talented students, the Quest program offers a personal tutor who provides challenging activities that encourage in-depth exploration of academic subjects. And a Sick Day Service provides an online course of study to absent students.

vTutor (Elluminate Inc.)

vTutor offers homework help and tutoring to K-12 students whose school districts subscribe to the service (unfortunately, subscriptions are not available to individuals). Though the company's primary focus is math and English language arts, tutoring in additional subjects, such as science, statistics, and psychology, is available upon request. Of all the products reviewed here, Elluminate offers access to the most specialized instructors: all are experienced, licensed, and certified educators who have a specialized degree or graduate degree in their subject area. Each instructor has also been trained in theories of online education and effective methods of teaching online.

The vTutor service uses a virtual classroom approach that requires the installation of a small Java applet (provided by the company) on the student's computer. In the virtual classroom, students and tutors can communicate via two-way audio, text chat, and shared whiteboards. vTutor is also the only program here to offer application sharing capabilities, which give tutors an extra avenue for illustrating key concepts. For example, a tutor could share an Excel spreadsheet with a student to demonstrate how changing variables affect the graph of an equation.

vTutor's usual hours are noon to 8 p.m. MT, but are customizable to the needs of the specific district (e.g., schools could elect to make the service available only during the evenings). Outside of tutoring hours, students may access a library of more than 100 recorded tutorial sessions that cover specific math and English topics.

SMARTHINKING (SMARTHINKING Inc.)

SMARTHINKING provides math and writing help to sixth- through 12th-graders from tutors who are college faculty, graduate students, high school teachers, or retired educators. Like vTutor, most of the tutors have advanced degrees in their fields, and the company provides rigorous training and regular evaluations of tutors for quality and consistency.

A drawback of SMARTHINKING is its lack of an option for voice interaction between student and tutor. Instead, users communicate using a text chat environment with a sophisticated online whiteboard. One of the greatest strengths of the tutoring environment is the whiteboard's capture function, which allows students to grab images of graphs or other data from any computer application to show to the tutor.

SMARTHINKING provides students with an impressive array of options for receiving instruction. Math tutors are available 24 hours a day, while writing tutors are available from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. EST, Monday through Thursday, and noon to 6 p.m. EST, Friday and Saturday. Students can also schedule sessions with specific tutors or submit a question at any time for later answer (similar to an "ask-an-expert" service). Beyond basic on-demand tutoring, SMARTHINKING offers a Math Tutoring Package, which develops personalized learning programs for students based on their performance on an online skills assessment. In addition, a unique Online Writing Lab provides a writing diagnostic, experienced writing instructors to answer grammar and style questions in real time, and writing coaches who review and provide detailed critiques of essays that students submit via an online form.

Tutor.com (Tutor.com)

The centerpiece of Tutor.com is Live Homework Help. The service, also offered for Spanish-speaking students, provides fourth- through 12th-graders with on-demand access to tutors for brief, targeted lessons on specific homework questions. Each session is limited to 20 minutes if other students are waiting for tutors; however, students can log on again to ask additional questions an unlimited number of times.

One of the greatest advantages of Live Homework Help is its fee structure: a flat monthly rate provides access to tutors seven days a week, from 2 p.m. to midnight EST. Alternatively, tutors are available at an hourly rate for private, online instruction in math, the sciences, social studies, English, test preparation, business, and many more subjects.

Schools should note that not all Tutor.com instructors are certified teachers some, in fact, are undergraduates enrolled in a four-year accredited university. However, all have expert knowledge in math, science, social studies, or English; and previous teaching or tutoring experience, specifically for grades 4-12.

Tutor.com is unique among the other offerings here in that it allows parents and students to screen tutors before paying for services. After selecting a tutor, students connect for an initial interview; if student and parent are satisfied the tutor is a good match for the student's needs, billing begins.

Both Live Homework Help and tutoring sessions use a Shockwave-based learning environment called the Online Classroom. After downloading the Shockwave plug-in, tutors and students can use their browser to communicate in real time by typing, drawing on a virtual whiteboard, and speaking into a microphone (an audio plug-in, available from Tutor.com, is needed).

eSylvan (Sylvan Education Solutions)

More of an online remedial curriculum than an on-demand tutoring service, eSylvan is the only product in this review to advertise a guarantee. The company promises that a third- through ninth-grade student who is at least one year below grade level (as measured by eSylvan's instruments) will improve at least one full grade level in math or reading after receiving 40 hours of online instruction.

To meet this goal, eSylvan employs only certified teachers as tutors and offers a more structured environment than drop-in help. At initiation, users are given an Online Skills Assessment to identify skills gaps. The assessment engine then develops a personalized program for the student, drawing from eSylvan's skills-based, proprietary curriculum over 11,000 lessons supporting more than 1,000 intended learning outcomes.

Using a headset with microphone and a digital writing pad to commun-icate (provided by eSylvan, along with necessary software, as part of the Starter Kit), students work through the prescribed curriculum under the guidance of tutors. After 36 hours of instruction, eSylvan administers a second online assessment to monitor progress. If the student is not on track to attain one year's advancement by 40 hours, the child's program is reworked, and he or she can continue with additional instruction until the goal has been met. Though the cost of such individualized learning paths may be prohibitive for many schools and families, eSylvan is worth considering for students who have fallen far behind their peers.

Jeffrey Branzburg is a contributing editor and regular columnist for Technology & Learning.

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Tracking the Tutors

See both comparion charts, Brainfuse, vTutor & SMARTHINKING and Tutor.com & eSylvan

Product BrainfusevTutorSMARTHINKING Publisher Trustforte Educational Services
(866) 272-4368
www.brainfuse.com Elluminate, Inc.
(954) 781-7958
www.elluminate.com/vtutor.jsp SMARTHINKING, Inc.
(888) 430-7429
www.smarthinking.com Platform Mac/Win Mac/Win Mac/Win (No Mac OS X support) Price $40 per hour or by district contract By district contract only $35 per hour; $120 for 4 hours; or by district contract Grade Level 3-12 6-12 K-12 Notable Features Available in Spanish; specialized tutoring for learning disabled or gifted students; Sick Day Service for absent students; science and social studies help included. Extensive communication options; attendance and usage reports for parents and administrators; science, statistics, and psychology help by request; districts can purchase just the vClass platform and use district personnel as tutors Capture function allows students to share data with tutors; online assessments identify strengths and weaknesses; library of academic resources available at all times Strengths Great variety of programs available for students with special needs; weekly progress reports available for students who work regularly with one tutor 24-hour access to library of recorded tutorial sessions on common math and English topics; application sharing feature enhances opportunity for hands-on learning; highly specialized instructors Sophisticated whiteboard feature with specialized math tools; math tutors are available seven days a week; variety of methods for students to contact; sessions are archived for review by students, parents, or administrators; online writing lab offers detailed critique of student essays Limitations Not all tutors are certified teachers Not available to individual subscribers No support for voice interaction; not all tutors are certified teachers Bottom Line An excellent choice for schools with learning disabled or gifted and talented student populations Credentialed tutors with specialized degrees make this a solid option for districts that want to provide highly qualified instruction outside of school Great for schools that want to offer 24/7 math help or extensive online coaching for compositionProduct Tutor.comeSylvan Publisher Tutor.com
(212) 528-3101
www.tutor.com Sylvan Education Solutions
(410) 843-2622
www.esylvan.com Platform Win only Win only Price $99 per month; $20 and up per hour; or by district contract $135 per diagnostic; $37-41 per hour Grade Level 4-12 3-9 Notable Features Available in Spanish; unlimited access to Live Homework Help Online skill assessment and prescribed learning paths; draws on Sylvan Learning's curriculum resources Strengths For private sessions, students and parents are able to screen their tutors before beginning billable sessions; services available at a flat rate or by the hour Results are guaranteed; accredited by both Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation and Middle States Commission on Elementary Schools Limitations Not all tutors have college degree (some are currently enrolled in university); 20-minute limit per session for Live Homework Help More expensive than the other programs; more similar to a curriculum than a tutor who answers questions Bottom Line Best for schools or libraries that want to offer quick homework help to the entire student population Ideal for the in-depth remediation of students who are more than one year below grade level

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