Online Tutoring Part of Growing Trend

Tamika Thomas works in the tutoring lab at the Art Institute of Washington. The school uses Smarthinking's service.
Tamika Thomas works in the tutoring lab at the Art Institute of Washington. The school uses Smarthinking's service. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Mark Chediak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

When students in Leslie Chernila's English class at the Art Institute of Washington write an essay about the work of Garrison Keillor, she has them send it off to a critic halfway across the country before turning it in. The paper soon returns, complete with comments about structure and word choice.

The service, offered by District-based Smarthinking Inc., is part of a growing educational trend that has millions of students logging on to get assistance with reading, writing and arithmetic. Once a dot-com pipe dream, online education is now maturing into a viable market. More than 2.6 million students in the United States were expected to study online through courses and tutoring last fall, up from 1.9 million in 2003, according to the Sloan Consortium, an online research group.

Burck Smith, chief executive and co-founder of Smarthinking, credits the rise in demand for online educational services to several factors, including an increase in the number of non-traditional students who don't have a lot of time to look for on-campus resources, a more competitive educational landscape in which colleges and schools are trying harder to attract students with additional services and students' greater familiarity with the Internet.

More than 500 institutions, including Anne Arundel Community College, Gallaudet University and the Art Institute of Washington, subscribe to Smarthinking. And the company says it has signed up 19 institutions for this fall, including District-based Southeastern University.

Schools pay Smarthinking for a block of time and offer students free access to the service from a personal computer or a college lab. Colleges signing up for the first time can buy a plan that permits up to 15 hours of tutoring for each student and then adjust its next contract according to usage, Smith said. The company did not disclose the cost per hour.

Terry H. Coye, director of tutorial and instructional programs at Gallaudet University, said his school turned to Smarthinking to supplement its limited tutoring services for graduate students. With many of Gallaudet's deaf and hard-of-hearing students accustomed to learning online, the service was a good fit, Coye said.

Founded in 1999, Smarthinking employs more than 450 part-time instructors from around the world to offer round-the-clock tutoring. Washington students struggling in the middle of the night with a math question may get an answer from a tutor in India, where the morning's work is already underway.

The company says 80 percent of its online tutors have graduate degrees in their discipline. While tutors come from around the world, 98 percent of the writing instructors are based in the United States.

Though some critics might worry that a student could get too much help from someone outside the classroom, the company said it trains its tutors -- who get an average of 15 hours of training -- to guide students through problems and not give away the answers.

The company is not yet profitable, Smith said, but he estimated that sales grew by "35 to 40 percent" last year. The new fall contracts are expected to bring in an additional $500,000 to $750,000, Smith said.

As more students become accustomed to the technology, the competition for online tutoring services is likely to heat up. Already, educational services giants Kaplan Inc., owned by the Washington Post Co., and Princeton Review Inc. have made inroads in the online education market. And Baltimore-based Educate Inc. said it plans to expand its online tutoring service.

"Long-term, there is no reason to believe [online tutoring] is not going to grow as students go online and take classes," said J. Mark Jackson, director of K-12 research at Eduventures Inc., a market-research firm. Because it is a supplemental service rather than a core offering, he said, it is unclear how large the market might grow.

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