A Tour of Online Tutors: Five Internet Tutoring Services Fill in the Gaps for Students Struggling with Specific Skills

By Branzburg, Jeffrey | Technology & Learning, March 2004 | Go to article overview

A Tour of Online Tutors: Five Internet Tutoring Services Fill in the Gaps for Students Struggling with Specific Skills


Branzburg, Jeffrey, Technology & Learning


When help from a tutor is needed to aid a child's academic growth, the Internet provides parents and teachers--especially those in areas where it is difficult to find qualified instructors--with many more options than ever. The stand-alone services reviewed here all provide online, real-time, one-on-one tutoring in core subject areas over the Internet. Some require students to install software (which is provided as part of the service), others function through a standard Web browser. All five services require tutors to have college experience; while some only use licensed and certified teachers, others use graduate students and other professionals as tutors. All the companies conduct background checks of the tutors they employ.

For this first look at online tutoring services, we chose these five specifically because at press time each qualified as a "supplemental service" under No Child Left Behind (however this is subject to change).

Brainfuse (Trustforte Educational Services)

Brainfuse offers remediation and homework assistance in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies to students in grades three through college. Not all Brainfuse tutors are state-certified teachers (some are graduate students or experienced academic tutors); however, every tutor must undergo an interview process that includes an academic credential review, background and reference checks, skills testing, personal references, and training.

Students and tutors have three modes for communication. In a typical session, students, log on, then ask questions either by typing an instant message or speaking into the microphone. The tutor responds by typing or speaking, and a virtual blackboard allows both students and tutors to clarify points with diagrams and drawings.

Schools have flexibility in the hours they elect to make the service available--from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., for example. Within those hours, eligible students will have unlimited access to consult with a tutor as many times as they need. Students also have the option of scheduling regular sessions with the same tutor, who sends weekly progress reports to parents.

One particular strength of the Brainfuse offering is the availability of several tutoring products tailored to specific groups of students. ACCESS provides one-on-one tutoring for learning-disabled students with instructors who have graduate-level training in special education. For gifted and talented students, the Quest program offers a personal tutor who provides challenging activities that encourage in-depth exploration of academic subjects. And a Sick Day Service provides an online course of study to absent students.

vTutor (Elluminate Inc.)

VTutor offers homework help and tutoring to K-12 students whose school districts subscribe to the service (unfortunately, subscriptions are not available to individuals). Though the company's primary focus is math and English language arts, tutoring in additional subjects, such as science, statistics, and psychology, is available upon request. Of all the products reviewed here, Elluminate offers access to the most specialized instructors: all are experienced, licensed, and certified educators who have a specialized degree or graduate degree in their subject area. Each instructor has also been trained in theories of online education and effective methods of teaching online.

The vTutor service uses a virtual classroom approach that requires the installation of a small Java applet (provided by the company) on the student's computer. In the virtual classroom, students and tutors can communicate via two-way audio, text chat, and shared whiteboards. vTutor is also the only program here to offer application sharing capabilities, which give tutors an extra avenue for illustrating key concepts. For example, a tutor could share an Excel spreadsheet with a student to demonstrate how changing variables affect the graph of an equation. …

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