Sitting down to the dinner table, your child quietly hands you his report card. Reading over his grades, you're pleased — until you reach the bottom.
The C- in algebra only confirms what you'd begun to fear earlier; he's falling behind the rest of the class and needs help to catch up. You know he's been doing his homework and putting forth a good effort because you've been sitting with him at this same table each night trying to help. But to be honest, you're not always sure how to solve for X yourself, and often the end result of the session is frustration and tears, rather than learning. You realize you need outside help, but where will you find it? And how will you fit it into your already hectic schedule? As with so many other aspects of our lives today, the Internet can be a valuable resource in helping your child complete homework assignments or get the additional instruction needed to keep up with his classmates.
Homework Help Sometimes children just need a few extra examples to get them started on a homework problem, or they need to research the background of a subject more thoroughly before they begin to understand it. This is where sites offering homework help can be valuable. Such websites are a centralized source of links to other sites which explain concepts and present facts. At BJ Pinchbeck's Homework Helper page on the Discovery Channel website
(Discovery.com), for example, you'll find direct links under the social studies heading to websites that contain information on anything from flags of the world, to a World War II timeline, to a United States government guide for kids. Under the Homework Spot (homeworkspot.com) foreign language heading, you'll find links to sites that help children who need to conjugate Latin verbs or compose a grammatically correct essay in Spanish. Homework help sites don't offer sessions led by an instructor, but are great for finding facts, or for self-paced tutorials. They are also free of charge.
Tutoring Help Online tutoring is just what it says: your child works with a tutor via the Internet. This type of tutoring has several advantages over traditional, face-to-face tutoring sessions. First, it's convenient. "Due to the busy lifestyles of many families with young children, the online option makes more sense," says Julie Bohnenkamp, director of technology in the School of
Education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).
Students and tutors arrange a mutually agreeable meeting time, which could be early in the morning or later in the evening. "I can see students close to bedtime, or at times when they do not have transportation to get to in-person sessions" says Sandy Fleming, an educational consultant and owner of Golden Opportunity Educational Services which offers online tutoring.
Cost can be another advantage of online tutoring. Overhead costs associated with traditional tutoring centers, such as purchasing materials or paying to rent space, are reduced or eliminated in cyberspace. Tutors can also work with more than one student at a time, or multi-task in other ways that allow them to charge less.
According to Fleming, online tutoring can also have psychological advantages. A child who might find face-to-face tutoring to be boring or too much like regular school may be excited by the thought of learning via cyberspace. "Children often find it quite motivating," she says. "After all, it's 'on the Internet.'" Likewise, it may relieve the stress on a child who is embarrassed to have his friends know he is receiving extra instruction after school. Because it can be done in the privacy of their own home, no one else will know it is happening. Some children also get nervous if someone is watching over their shoulder as they try to work through a problem — a situation that is eliminated by virtual instruction.
Is Online Tutoring Right for My Child? Before you sign on with an online tutoring service, you need to decide if it will be a good fit for your child and your particular circumstances. Age and reading ability are a primary concern. Some tutors work only with children in certain grades, usually grade two through high school. In many cases, the student will be receiving instruction by reading the tutor's messages, so Fleming recommends a minimum age or reading level of third grade.
The child's motivation and work ethic are also a big factor to consider.
Because the tutor is not in the room with them, they may have a harder time concentrating on the lesson. According to Fleming, "Children who are motivated to work together on improving academic skills are more successful than the reluctant ones, but that's true for in-person sessions as well." Being able to provide the proper atmosphere during the session is also important. Really, it is much like having the proper setting for children to do their regular homework assignments: a quiet place, free of distractions like music, television or interruptions from other family members. Of course, the online environment must be considered too. "It's very difficult to teach students who are also engaged in Instant Messaging conversations with their friends. They think I can't tell. I can, and I talk to their parents about it,” says Fleming.
There are also technical considerations, not the least of which is the computer savvy of your child. You have to have Internet access, of course, and oftentimes programs such as Shockwave or a particular web browser are required to enter the virtual classroom area. A microphone and speakers are necessary if the service supports audio instruction. To use the more technically advanced sites, your child must be comfortable with online chatting, as well as uploading files, and navigating the online classroom application, which may be overwhelming for younger students.
In certain situations, Fleming and Bohnenkamp agree, online tutoring is not the best choice. A child with learning disabilities is one example. Not only is it more difficult for a child with previously diagnosed learning disabilities to receive help via online tutoring, but an online tutor may be hard pressed to pick up on the signals that a child has a learning disability if it is undiagnosed.
If a student is not convinced that they really need the help, or they're not interested in improving their academic performance, online tutoring is not a good option either. Bohnenkamp cites the personal interaction between a trained professional and a student as necessary for some children to succeed. Without the close supervision of a face-to-face tutor, some students will miss sessions or use other resources or people to answer the questions posed by the tutor.
Choosing a Service After making the decision that your child would do well with online services, you need to evaluate the services offered. There are many variables that must be taken into consideration when choosing a service, and finding the one with the right mix of attributes for you and your child requires thorough research.
Cost: The prices charged by online tutoring services range widely. Many services allow you to choose between different tutors listed on their site who set their own price according to their experience and expertise. You could pay anywhere from $20 per hour to have a homeschooling mom tutor your elementary student, to upwards of $65 per hour to receive instruction from a college professor. Other services offer packages where you receive a certain number of hours of instruction for a set price, which could be anywhere from $135 for a basic package to a deluxe package costing $1500. Still other services charge by the month for unlimited tutor access, usually coming in around the $40-$60 range. It's important to understand the fees before you sign on to use a program. Know exactly how you will be charged, what you are being charged for, and if there is a refund policy if you aren't pleased with the results of the tutoring.
Tutor Quality: Tied closely to how much you should be paying for these services is the quality of the instruction your child is receiving. Some services use only certified teachers and employ rigorous background checks of credentials and criminal history. Even so, be aware that there is no industry regulation or accrediting agency; you must always operate under the buyer-beware principle. Other services allow people with extensive professional, academic or life experience in a certain area to tutor students. If you're looking for an accounting tutor, for example, you may find you have a choice between a high school accounting teacher, a graduate student in a business degree program, or someone who has worked in accounts receivable in a large corporation for 20 years. You must judge the capability of each person to instruct your child, and balance that with the difference in price you would expect to pay for each tutor's time.
Technology: There are significant differences in the way your child interacts with his or her tutor depending on which service you choose. Some services operate on an email or chat room format only. Others include fax or phone conferences as well. The most advanced sites use a virtual classroom setup which most closely approximates a face-to-face tutoring session. In the virtual classroom, students have access to real time chat as well as a whiteboard. The whiteboard allows both the student and the tutor to work problems and write answers just like on a blackboard that they both can see. In addition, some sites are set up so student and tutor can actually speak with each other.
Subjects offered: If the subject matter you're seeking help with is in the elementary or high school math or language arts area, the majority of the online services will accommodate you. Other sites offer everything from chemistry to history to computer programming to classical piano. A few sites offer instruction up to the collegiate level.
Scheduling: Since one of the reasons people use online tutoring is because it's easier to fit into their daily schedule, pay attention to the availability of the tutors at the site you select. In most cases, the child's personal tutor is available at a time mutually convenient to both parties and arranged in advance. But there are some sites where tutors are only available at certain hours on certain days of the week, and you may not connect with the same tutor each time. If it is most convenient for your child to connect with her reading tutor after school on Tuesday at 3:30pm but the tutor is only available Monday and Wednesday between 6pm and 9pm, this site won't be of much use to you.
Other services offered: Some of the sites offer other services that complement the tutoring you're paying for. In some cases, they have online homework help, where you can make a random connection to whichever tutor is online at that time for help with immediate homework questions. Other sites offer to not only match you with an online tutor, but allow you to search for tutors in your area so you can arrange face-to-face sessions if you prefer.
Here are some web sites to get you started on your tutor search.
• Tutor.com: Tutors range from certified teachers to college students to those with life experience. Some tutors have completed a verification process. Lists over 200 subjects in grades K-college. Prices are set by individual tutors and start at $20 per hour. Site also lets you search for tutors in your geographic area for face-to-face sessions.
• Tutornet.com: Tutors range from certified teachers to graduate students to professional tutors. Sessions held in a virtual classroom. Help available for basic science, math and language arts for elementary through college students. Price is $40 per month for unlimited use. Tutors available
only on the site’s schedule. Instruction also available in Spanish.
Tutoring face-to-face Online tutors may offer convenience, but can they provide the personal touch a student will receive by attending as tutoring center?
"Online tutoring isn't much of a risk because it's cheap," says Rachel Meyer, director of the New York City-based ABC Language Services, Inc. "But there's a lot to be said for human interaction. When we first get a new student, I go in there with the tutor and we consult with the parent on what the child needs. Online tutoring is like going around in the dark."
Meyer believes that online tutoring isn't very effective unless the student is old enough, motivated enough, or unless its focus is "very technical — formulaic — like cramming for chemistry Regents."
She also warns that research on the Web is not reviewed for accuracy, the way research material put out by book publishers is. "Research on the Web varies from fluff to real quality research," she says. "It doesn't go through the hoop the way genuine published material does. If you buy a book, the publisher has done the work and decided whose research is valid. That's what's misleading about the Web — you can buy a domain name, like 'prepareforregents.com', but who's regulating you?"
Meyer says she was surprised, when she became the director at ABC over four years ago, that most New York parents sought out tutors not for students who were failing, but to supplement the work that was being done in the schools. "Parents who came to us were ambitious for their kids; they felt that the standards of the public schools were too low, that the classes were too crowded, and they didn't necessarily have the $20,000 or $30,000 tuition for private school. Twenty thousand dollars is low-end tuition, so to hire a tutor for $50-$75 an hour is cheap by comparison."
Meyer concedes, "Online tutoring works great for the motivated student." But, she adds, "The motivated student will go to the library."
— Joe Lugara