Online Homework Help: Evaluating the Options

Article excerpt

Not so long ago, the only option for providing homework help through the public library was organizing homework centers and using library staff, volunteers, or paid tutors. Students had to come to the library, and in many cases needed to schedule an appointment in advance. The ability to access the service depended on geographic proximity to the library, transportation, hours of operation, and availability of a qualified tutor. With these limitations, many students could not take advantage of this library service.

With the advent of the Internet, libraries began to offer homework help through pathfinders on their websites. Although students could find useful information by following the links to highlighted websites, the information was static and there was no way to evaluate students' success in finding what they needed.

Throughout the past several years, a new model has been adopted by public libraries to complement the earlier models of homework centers and pathfinders--online tutoring services. By subscribing to an online tutoring service, libraries provide students with access to tutors through the Web. This new model allows libraries to extend tutoring services to more students during more hours.

According to a new ALA study, online homework help is thriving in public libraries. "Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study 2007-2008" reports that public libraries are using technology at record rates to help children succeed in school. More than 83 percent of public libraries offer online homework resources, including live tutors--up 15 percent in one year. (1) From these findings, it would seem that it's no longer a question of whether to offer online homework help but rather one of when and how.

Online homework help (also called online tutoring) leverages technology to provide the attention and support of a live tutor skilled in the subject area where the student needs help. For the 73 percent of students who already turn to their computers at homework time, it is a natural fit and a welcome resource.

The greatest benefit for students is the on-demand nature of online homework help. Students can use their online tutoring time for help with an assignment or to build skills, study for a test, or brainstorm ideas for a science project.

How Online Tutoring Works in the Library Environment

Online tutoring services have been available through public libraries since 2000. The fundamental features of online tutoring or online homework help are

* the connection with a live tutor over the Internet;

* the ability to not need an appointment;

* the access to help on-demand in core subjects;

* the availability of services outside of school and library hours; and

* the access to services through computers in the library or at home.

Access to a tutor begins through the library's website, whether the student is in the library or at home. Some services are completely Web-based while others require a software download. Students click on a link, authenticate with a library card number, and provide their grade level and the subject in which they need help. They are then connected to a tutor who has been screened and certified by the tutoring service. Tutors and students engage in online chat; some services also permit voice communication.

Students and tutors share a whiteboard on which both can draw and write. On some services websites can be shared and files can be uploaded and downloaded within the online classroom environment. Depending on the service you choose, more than one whiteboard might be available simultaneously and writing assistance might be on-demand in a secure tutoring classroom. Other services check writing assignments and provide assistance offline in several hours or the next day, sending an alert to the student's e-mail when his or her writing assignment has been reviewed by a tutor. …