Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Online Tutoring: Using a Global “Exchange” to Match Supply and Demand

Last week the Dean of Academic Affairs at one of the American university clients asked if our online teachers could help returning adult students without access to assistance off campus. This was not the first email of its kind. But it was the first time a client made no mention about cost savings to the institution. His sole motivation was the isolated students’ need for quality support. It is a good indication of online teaching’s growing “demand side”.

Our experience on the supply side offers an interesting counterpoint. As a profession, teaching has never been the best paymaster - anywhere in the world. Talent tends to be pulled to more lucrative offerings, even when no small part of it hears teaching’s siren song. Only the most motivated actually take up the calling. Most are drawn to metropolitan areas; to be precise, suburbs rather than inner cities or rural areas. Many of the most talented who move to isolated schools end up as managers. These institutions are hard-pressed to supply their isolated students with classroom teachers across the curriculum.

What options does society have to bring the best teaching to isolated students? One idea is to make teaching in more remote areas financially attractive. An alternative is having all teachers work in these locations for a certain period of time as a part of their own professional development. One is costly, the other takes a great many operational changes. Both are long-term strategies at best.

Online tutoring promises to provide more isolated students with high quality support from a wide variety of subject-matter specialists. Time zone differences can actually help all students - allowing them to ask a tough question at midnight, let someone work on the problem overnight, and then attack it again in the morning with renewed vigor. Separating teaching from the class day and room also permits “just-in-time” online support in narrow parts of the curriculum - breaking down operational barriers that neither attract nor allow “non-teacher” professionals to work in traditional classrooms.

There is an emerging market democracy of “exchanges” matching students and teacher on the web. It is destroying the old barriers of time and geography, but enhancing traditional means of education. In our firm I have seen a part-time Indian tutor transacting to support a newAmerican student and working with that student online within thirty minutes of the student’s initial contact.

Getting these exchanges to work well - matching a student with the right expert at the right time - is not a trivial task. India may churn out 50 million university graduates every year, but all are not ready for global tutoring. Even “universal” subjects like math and the sciences are dealt with differently by each continent, country, region, state and locality.

For each student, the value-added of the best exchanges is a teacher who knows exactly what they need to learn and how they learn best. In the “exchange” business, competitive advantage lies in how candidate tutors are screened, trained for the global online environment, a large and varied stable of subject/grade experts developed, and knowing enough about students to make the right match quickly.

What online tutoring needs are better ways to make these meetings happen easily. Instead of waiting for another university dean’s call, we need to be proactive in letting our teachers meet their students online. This is our industry’s great challenge, and something our firm is working hard to improve. ••••

-First Published in School Improvement Industry Weekly (