India’s Classrooms Without Borders

Every day at 3am, with the stars still stippling a dark, phosphorescent sky, Madhur Kapdi drives to his office in suburban Bangalore, India’s information-technology crucible, for work. After greeting his colleagues, Kapdi settles down in his cubicle with a mug of coffee, logs into his computer and begins — tutoring students online across a swath of countries.

With two master’s degrees, Kapdi is a math tutor at Vistas, an online tutorial outfit. He belongs to a rapidly multiplying breed of educated Indians providing online tutoring to foreign students over the Internet. Indian companies now have captured almost 20 percent of the market in the United States, at least 16 time zones away, partly because of that country’s No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates that the US government pay for private tutoring for students in underperforming schools.

Thus India, already a powerhouse in business process outsourcing and manufacturing centers, is benefiting once again from the death of distance at the hands of the Internet. It is rising as a hub for online education, providing supplemental academic help at any time of the day or night from Indian tutors to students on a raft of subjects — math, English, science, geography and history, among others.

“India is fast emerging as a global online tutoring hub for quality teaching at down-to-earth rates,” opines Dr Prakash Sharma, previously a physics professor at Chennai University and now a tutor at Knowledge Edge, an education portal in Delhi. According to Sharma, what gives India an edge in this market are its untapped pool of English-conversant math, science and engineering graduates, its relatively low office rentals, and tuition fees that are a fraction of what online tutorial companies charge in North America, the United Kingdom, or continental Europe.

Mumbai-based Manoj Kapoor, who plans to launch an education portal called Quest early in the new year, adds: “India has unique cultural/educational advantages such as extensive and advanced teaching and tutoring systems and a comprehensible English accent.” This edge, says Kapoor, makes India an especially attractive resource for foreign tutoring firms. “Plus, offshore tutors are a great solution for an underserved market, especially for lower-income students, many of whom live away from the cities where private tutors are hard to access.”

Within two years, since supplementary education through the Internet attained industry status in India, its growth has been exploding at 100-150 percent annually. The reasons are not difficult to find. Online tutors are available 24 hours a day for one-on-one help in every conceivable subject. Students can log in at their convenience and assignments can be discussed through online chat sessions with the help of a virtual whiteboard that allows for the use of charts, graphs and diagrams.

Those wanting help with a project can submit a draft for feedback, which usually comes back within 24 hours. Advanced software allows teachers and students to communicate through live sessions. Teachers can also use tablet PCs to draw diagrams and formulas to teach a lesson or answer queries. Both parties can even see each other through a live feed using a Web camera.

Analysts say the relatively new phenomenon of online tutoring is a triumph of technology and a reinforcement of the fact that globalization is fast leveling the playing field in intellectual capital. As developing technology erodes the barriers to communication, educators predict, tutoring will join other jobs facing global competition.

According to industry estimates, the global online tutoring market is currently worth US$12 billion, of which India’s share is about $3 billion. These figures will ratchet up, educators say, because of the advantages the medium offers vis-à-vis one-on-one tutoring – the convenience of students not having to travel to tutorial centers, its affordability, and the safety aspect.

Says Fremont, California-based Meeta Mishra, whose teenage daughter Aarti takes online math tutoring from Tutorvista: “My daughter doesn’t need to travel for her tutoring nor do we have to let in a stranger at home. The safety aspect of online tutoring is a great boon for young girls.”

Once an elite phenomenon, tutoring has now become so pervasive that it is altering the face of global education. The transcontinental growth of the industry is also due to the requirement of after-hours supplemental academic help and a fashionable trend of parents spending wads of money apart from school fees on tutoring. Plus, an education crisis in the US and UK, due to whittling down of government funds, and a crunch of qualified teachers has forced parents to look further for supplementary education aids.

To capitalize on the exponentially growing demand, online tutoring outfits have mushroomed across India. Currently, India has about 200 reputable online tutoring outfits catering to about 20 million students. Delhi-based Extramarks.com, launched last month, for instance, caters to students from Grades 6-12, encouraging parents and teachers to be part of its online interactive sessions. As a departure from the norm, rather than a phone-in option, Extramarks.com asks its customers to post their queries online. Students are charged on a per-query basis with a 10-question package in one subject costing a nominal Rs100 (about $2). Encouraged with the market response to its offerings, Extramarks will soon launch virtual classrooms and expand its services to the US and UK markets.

Similarly, content provider Educomp Solutions, a stock market-listed company currently serves about four million users across India, Singapore and the US. Its portal www.mathguru.com answers math-related queries from customers who pay an annual subscription of Rs2,023 (about $50). The portal currently caters to more than 15,000 users and by early 2008 hopes to see the figure balloon to 30,000.

Apart from subject-related portals, those that prepare students for competitive entrance exams in the fields of medicine, engineering and business administration are also burgeoning. For instance, www.learninghour.com offers a six-month course for medial entrance exams for Rs7,500. It also offers customized packages of Rs2,500 per month for 10 sessions of one-hour duration for one subject, and allows students the flexibility to study individually or in groups of three or more.

Of course what have also helped spur the tutoring business are the relatively attractive pay packages these companies offer to teachers. India has 950,000 schools and more than 220 million students. Even though the teacher-student ratio is abysmal (1:30 as against the international norm of 1:8), teachers remain the most poorly paid professionals. Thus most of the new tutorial companies have no problems luring teachers into their fold. At Extramarks.com, for instance, a teacher with about five years’ experience draws a monthly salary of Rs12,000 ($300), almost double what a trained Indian graduate teacher would draw in a private school. Teachers at Learninghour and Mathguru are similarly offered pay scales in the range of Rs150 to Rs250 per hour, quite unattainable for an average Indian teacher.

Apart from tasting success in India, Indian online tutorial companies are also expanding operations abroad, especially in the US, where they’ve managed to capture almost 20 percent of the current market share. However, offshore tutoring companies are still a relatively small segment of the $4 billion US tutoring industry even though they’re multiplying fast. Apart from cornering business, US-based Indian tutorial outfits such as Tutorvista, Career Launcher and Educomp, Smartthinking.com, Educomp Datamatics, Mentoraide.com are also competing for the millions of dollars available to private tutoring firms under the No Child Left Behind Act.

What has helped the overseas Indian tutorial market is the entrepreneurial savvy of Indian business people with links to the subcontinent, who are capitalizing on indigenous intellectual capital – especially in math and science subjects – to brighten up American kids. This is obviously a boon for American students who, according to a study of math skills released last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, rank 24th among 29 industrialized countries in scholastic achievement.

In addition, a severe crunch of good math/sciences teachers in the US, especially with school enrollment surging and baby-boomers retiring, has created a vacuum for good instructors. In fact the American Association of Employment in Education reports that 40 percent of US high schools had difficulty filling math openings this year with qualified instructors.

Driving the trend is cost. Private tutoring in the United States and Europe can cost $100 an hour or more. On the other hand, an online session with Indian tutors runs less than $20 an hour, cheaper if students sign up for a monthly rate. Career Launcher is one of the many Indian firms tutoring US students. The company started in 1995 as a tutoring service and caters largely to teenagers preparing for entrance exams for prestigious engineering schools. In 2000, Intel Capital, a venture-capital arm of Intel Corp, bought a stake in Career Launcher valued at just under $1 million. Since then, the outfit has started operations in the Middle East, mostly addressing the needs of kids of expatriate Indian professionals.

Growing Stars, another small outfit headquartered in Fremont, California, with a center in Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala, offers one-on-one services for $20 an hour, significantly less than big US organizations such as Sylvan and Kaplan. Another firm, Smarthinking.com, delivers Internet tutoring in high-school and college subjects for $35 an hour. But low Indian wage rates let Chicago-based Studyloft charge even less – just $18 an hour. While some Indian companies contract with US e-tutoring providers, some work directly with schools and students.

Despite their growing presence, critics worry about the teaching standards of these companies and how well they can bridge the physical and cultural gulf. The outfits, however, are quick to assert that these problems are not insurmountable. With the right software, a good Internet connection, a headset with a microphone and voiceovers, tutor and student can communicate fairly well in real time, using a pen-based tablet and an electronic whiteboard. Apart from physical absence, they say, there’s little to distinguish an online session from a classroom experience. Plus, flexibility is a bonus.

TutorVista, for instance, claims to give all its tutors 60 hours of language and cultural training to help them relate better to US students – including teaching them American slang.

However, Indian tutors – who also undergo two days of training to learn an American accent and US teaching methods – state that they do face cultural gaps. Dealing with students online rather than face to face can be tough, they say. “Relating personally with students, motivating them and promoting higher-level thinking are all very challenging when we can’t see each other,” says Monika Bhide, who works as an online tutor in Delhi.

The service also can be impersonal – particularly if students don’t get to use the same tutor each time. Communication glitches are invariably a part of the deal. Critics also worry that foreign tutors aren’t always well equipped to teach local students. In fact the American Federation of Teachers has been arguing that any tutor – whether American or foreign – who is a beneficiary of federal dollars ought to be certified. Indian educationists too have been expressing concern about the quality of online content and the credentials of tutors who impart lessons to millions of students.

But regardless of the pros and cons of the teaching mode, there’s no denying that with a skyrocketing demand for online tuition – and market-savvy service providers keen to cater to it – the business appears here to stay.