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As online tutoring, advising expand, educators wonder what's gained and what's lost

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 5, 2010 - Varsity Tutors, a company founded by a graduate of Clayton High School and Washington University, prides itself on making house calls.

Most of the one-on-one tutoring takes place in students’ living rooms, not in school libraries or coffee shops. After school and on weekends, certified teachers work with K-8 students on math, science, reading and writing; college students who have scored highly on standardized tests work with high school students on test prep and a range of academic subjects.

What started as a project of three college buddies in 2007 has grown into a company that employs more than 300 tutors in St. Louis and four other cities -- Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.

As of now, all the private tutoring happens face to face. But that might soon change.

“Education is ripe for innovation,” said Chuck Cohn, the 24-year-old founder and chief executive of Varsity Tutors. “It’s an industry that seems to utilize technology less than any other.”

Cohn’s high-tech idea for his company: Develop an online portal where tutors and clients can connect in between in-person sessions or, in rare cases, in lieu of that face-to-face meeting.

Taking tutoring online, where students spend an increasing amount of time, is a natural extension for a company that puts an emphasis on making its educators accessible.

Virtual tutoring is a growing industry -– one that ranges from online-only sessions between a student and a tutor who lives in another country to the brand of supplemental e-advising that Cohn is promoting.

Supporters of web-based tutoring are bolstered by recent research conducted for the U.S. Department of Education that found that on average, students in online learning environments performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The report mostly deals with differences between online and traditional classroom teaching. And while it doesn’t focus on private tutoring, the results show that online education -- a major growth area at colleges -- has the potential to allow for increasingly tailored instruction.

Webster University was an early adopter of online education. The school offers online degree programs and individual online courses for students living near its main campus, as well as those who live in other parts of the country and internationally, including members of the U.S. military.

Like most institutions, Webster has a writing center on campus where tutors work with students on term papers and other assignments. For the students who are too far away to visit the office or simply prefer getting help from home, Webster has a free online writing center run through its academic resource center.

Students send their papers to two adjunct faculty members and one undergraduate who promise to return the work with comments about style, spelling, grammar, sentence structure and the author’s overall flow within 48 hours. Papers can be e-mailed back and forth multiple times within a several-day span. And it's hardly an anonymous process: Students know the names of their writing coach and often request them for in-person sessions.

Michelle Saintuny, a student who is about to finish her bachelor's degree in psychology, always asks for the same writing coach who is by now familiar with her writing style. She regularly e-mails the instructor her papers shortly before they are due and often sends final drafts to the coach with the suggested revisions made.

"When you are speaking a second language [French is her first], it's nice to have someone coaching you," Saintuny said. "It's something I don't think many students are aware of."

Saintuny lives in Orlando, Fla., and has never been to Webster's campus in St. Louis. She said she doesn't feel like she is missing out by not being able to have face-to-face interactions with her writing coach. "I get detailed, sentence-by-sentence advice," she said. "It's just like I was sitting in front of the person." 

Much of the academic advising process at Webster also happens online. Students often e-mail advisers with questions about what classes to take and how to handle a particular assignment. Tyann Cherry, a senior academic adviser at Webster who works primarily with online students, responds with links to subject-specific tutors or contacts in the career center.

The online writing center mostly serves graduate students, said Barbara Stewart, director of the academic resource center. Webster likes undergraduates to use the on-campus center.

But in recent years, Cherry said Webster has learned not to think of students who take online classes and those that mostly take classes on campus as different populations.

“A lot of students, even the local ones, prefer not to have face-to-face meetings,” said Cherry, who’s also chair of the distance education advising commission for the National Academic Advising Association. “Everyone is busy, and that’s something we’re attuned to.” 

Stewart said the online writing center has grown in popularity every semester. She said the benefits to students include fast turnarounds on papers and the ability to get help without leaving their home.

Cherry said she agreed that convenience is a major reason online education has flourished. “It’s about having the flexibility to set up an evening appointment with an adviser, and also about being able to get responses late at night if a tutor happens to be online,” Cherry said.

“The downside,” Stewart said, “is you lose some of that back-and-forth dialogue like, ‘tell me what this passage means, tell me about your thesis,’ that the writing center encourages.”

Cherry said academic advisers have to be conscious of the tone of their e-mails, since in many cases it's the primary way they communicate with students. Another drawback, she said, is that particularly in quantitative subjects, “some students struggle with the material, and the fact that they are learning this new material while navigating this new online environmental can make things particularly challenging.”

Cohn, the Varsity Tutors CEO, said his ideal online platform for interacting with students would allow both the student and the tutor to write back-and-forth in real time. It would also involve both video and audio. That way tutors could watch students solve problems and give advice along the way. 

Cohn said he views online tutoring as a way for students to ask follow-up questions of their tutors without having to wait until the next in-person meeting. It’s also a back-up-plan in case someone can’t make a session due to illness. 

“Online tutoring can enhance the process, but I don’t think it’s ever a substitute for meeting with a tutor once or twice a week in person,” Cohn said. “Teachers need to develop a rapport with their students to be effective. Interacting with someone who only talks to you through a chat window and can’t hear your voice and see the mistakes you’re making as you work is limiting.” 

It’s a philosophy he’ll have to defend as students increasingly view online interactions as the norm.