Help Is on the Way(2)

Online tutoring services expand students' options.

No Child Left Behind has been a boon to entrepreneurial supplemental educational service (SES) providers. Struggling schools must provide supplemental services to students in an effort to boost their achievement. Federal funds pay for much of this extra instruction; states may pick up some of the tab, as well. School systems may purchase supplemental curriculum materials for use in the classroom or offer after school classes. They can schedule group or individual tutoring with paid volunteers or private companies. And now they can even offer services from an online tutoring provider.

Selecting the most appropriate tutoring option is a complex choice. Decision makers must consider the specific needs of their students, the logistics of delivering service to those students, and the options available from local, regional, and national providers. There is clearly no single "best" choice. Online tutoring is a new option in this mix, and providers are still developing and expanding their programs.

Online tutoring offers several important advantages. It is available for an extended time period, and students can access help when they need it, even at home. Online providers take responsibility for monitoring the quality of the assistance they offer, and their services may cover a wider range of grade levels or subjects than typical individual tutors can. For students in remote rural areas, online tutoring could very well be the best—if not the only—option.

What does a school want from its online tutoring program? Educators want help for a range of grade levels and for the program to be available over extended periods throughout the day. Student queries must elicit rapid responses from qualified tutors who understand and can explain the material without simply doing the students' work for them.

Beyond that, how easy is the tutoring interface to use? Can students just drop in for help when they need it, or do they have to schedule tutoring in advance? Finally, can teachers, administrators, and parents monitor how students are doing? Here's a look at two SES providers available to schools.

Apangea SmartHelp

Apangea SmartHelp offers programmed lessons in mathematics over the Internet. Students receive most instruction through a series of computer-driven programmed lessons and interact with a live tutor only when they experience difficulty. This allows the company to have one tutor working with large numbers of students at the same time and keep costs low.

Apangea offers instruction in topics ranging from middle school arithmetic to algebra. Each lesson begins with basic instruction in a skill, followed by a short test to determine whether the student has mastered that skill. Once students pass a quiz, they are presented with a series of increasingly difficult word problems in which they apply what they have learned.

Apangea SmartHelp provides math lessons supplemented by a live online tutor.

This problem-solving section is SmartHelp's greatest strength. The program breaks the problem-solving process into a series of small, manageable steps, and it does not allow students to move on until the previous step has been completed. SmartHelp raises the level of difficulty in these problems gradually, adding additional complexity only after students have succeeded at a more basic level.

The instructional interface is elegant and easy to read. It doesn't put too much information on the screen at any one time, and it allows students to move between screens to review explanations. Problems are illustrated with simple, colorful diagrams, and a clear voice provides instructions. A few simple buttons let students look at resource information such as a table of formulas and a glossary in pop-up windows. They can also review the lesson or ask for help.

When they make a mistake, students are alerted with a tone and receive help through computerized hints printed on the screen. If they are still experiencing difficulty, they are connected to an online human tutor. Students communicate with the tutor through a chat box, but the tutor speaks through an audio connection that is quite clear even through a dial-up connection. Live tutors are available Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. (EST), and Saturdays from 9 a.m. until noon. Programmed tutoring is available at any time, however.

Another of SmartHelp's strengths is the access teachers have to their students' progress. The program uses diagnostic tests and assigns appropriate content. However, educators can also log on to the Web to assign specific content to their students. SmartHelp provides easy-to-read Web-based progress reports on each student's level of success.

Although SmartHelp lessons work well with dial-up access, they run slowly enough to test the patience of some students; a faster connection works better. In addition, the computerized tutor seemed insufficiently flexible in some instances—for example, it refused to accept sq. in. in place of square inches. Overall, Apangea's SmartHelp provides well-structured math practice and assistance for students who need extra help.

Catapult Online

Catapult Online offers instruction and assistance from a human tutor, with whom students communicate through a two-way headset or by writing or drawing on the screen. Tutors work with no more than three students at any one time. Students work independently of one another, so each experiences a one-on-one tutoring session.

Catapult offers instruction in both mathematics and reading for instructional levels 3—8; many older students functioning below grade level are enrolled in the program. Tutoring is available from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. (EST) on weekdays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays; and 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays. Students must schedule their one-hour sessions in advance.

Students communicate with Catapult Onine tutors via a two-way headset or by drawing or writing on the screen.

When a school system purchases this product, each participating student receives a dial-up Internet connection and a program-ready computer to take home. Until students finish their prescribed tutoring program, the computer is dedicated to tutoring only. After students successfully complete their tutoring sessions, the computer is "unlocked," and they get to keep it. That's a pretty strong incentive for students to work hard. Needless to say, this is an expensive product, with fees averaging about $1,500 per student. Educate, Catapult's parent company, also offers the identical service to individual customers through Sylvan Learning Systems.

Prior to tutoring, students take an online assessment-the California Achievement Test-to determine their instructional needs. Students are tested again after completing their program. Catapult educators monitor student progress and make adjustments to their programs as needed.

Parents and administrators can get detailed Web-based reports on individual student progress. Teachers can also be granted access to these reports and have the option of calling a toll-free number to request tutoring for their students in specific skill areas if they choose. However, prescriptive requests from educators are not an integral part of the program.

Each instructional module begins with a short session of direct instruction, followed by some guided practice. Users then get some independent practice, followed by a few problems in which they have to apply the skill they have learned. Finally, students take a short mastery test. If the test result is not satisfactory, the tutor cycles them back into additional instruction and practice. Tutors award tokens for good work, which can be redeemed online for prizes.

The screen interface, which is simple and easy to use, seems designed for students of elementary age. The screen displays a large space where students read problems and instructions and type or draw their answers. Above and to the left are several large buttons that give students options for how they will interact with their tutor-drawing, typing, and erasing, for example. Problems disappear off the screen after being completed, but users can scroll back to look again if they choose. Students can also communicate with the tutor by voice or by typing in a chat bar at the bottom of the screen. Learners can "raise their hands" and alert the tutor that they are finished by pressing a button.

In the module that teaches the Pythagorean theorem, the guided practice seemed surprisingly accelerated. Students get only one problem in which to calculate the length of the hypotenuse before they are asked to calculate the length of one of a triangle's sides. However, the human tutor does have the option of giving the student additional practice in a Scratch Pad section at the bottom of the screen.

The minimal use of diagrams or other visual representations is surprising, too; one problem asked the student to calculate the height of a building against which a ladder was leaning. It seemed the perfect time for an illustrative graphic, but there was none. In another lesson on calculating the volume of pyramids and cones, the instruction seemed focused on the mechanics of calculating, with little emphasis on understanding how or why the calculations work.

The reading section includes instruction in basic skills like alphabetizing and vocabulary development as well as higher-level skills such as comprehension and making inferences. Some exercises call for multiple choice responses, but others require the student to write short answers using either the Draw or Type tools.

The success of a product like this depends on the quality of the tutoring, of course. Catapult tutors, who work from various locations around the country, are monitored in real time by experienced educators.

Paul Fleisher is a retired middle school teacher and the author of several dozen books for children and educators.

Tutor.Com provides electronic connections to live tutors, primarily through public libraries. Subscribers pay rates pegged to the number of people residing in the localities they serve, and there is no cost to library patrons. also markets tutoring to individuals for $15 per hour on a pay-as-you-go basis. offers help in a wide range of subjects, from grade 4 through introductory college courses. Students can ask for help in English, writing, math through second-year algebra, science, and social studies. The service is also available in Spanish.

Tutoring is available from 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. EST, seven days a week. Teachers and students communicate through a chat-style connection. About half the screen is devoted to a "whiteboard" that allows students to type or draw as they interact with the tutor. A simple toolbar offers drawing tools, an eraser, and a text tool, as well as an assortment of mathematical symbols. Students can also upload files for tutors to examine and review—a good way to get quick writing assistance.

Libraries get monthly usage reports, including comments from student users. But doesn't offer feedback to classroom teachers, nor opportunities for their instructional input. Nevertheless, for help with an occasional assignment, this option could certainly be useful to students. And for libraries looking for new ways to upgrade the services they offer the public and to entice more young people to use them, provides an attractive option. -PF