“Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best./Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.” — Dr. Seuss from Oh, The Places You’ll Go (1990)
Cope and Kalantzis (2000) suggest that the purpose of education “is to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, and economic life.” It stands to reason, then, that we should afford our students every opportunity to succeed — and ensuring that all students, no matter their socioeconomic status, have access to affordable tutoring, should be a part of any system that advocates equal educational opportunity.
So it was with great interest that I read Julia Wedigier’s article, “British Kids Log On and Learn Math — in Punjab,” in the New York Times on Sunday. According to the article, an relatively recent upstart U.K. online tutoring company, BrightSpark, makes its service available at a discount — affordable to many poor and working class Britons who would otherwise be unable to afford the expense of a standard tutor — by hiring tutors in India and making them available via the Internet for British schoolchildren who struggle with math. The tutors and students conduct sessions through interactive white boards, usually for 45 minute sessions. While teachers’ unions seem up in arms — of course, they see this as a potential threat — those in favor point to the cost-benefit: the service opens up a new market of (cheaper) tutors. Tutors in India are paid 1/3 of those in the U.K., and there is a wealth of expertise waiting to be tapped.
As I investigated BrightSpark, I was interested to discover other companies who perform the same types of services, particularly in the United States. TutorVista is one such company and — perhaps not so amazingly — is owned by Pearson — the same company responsible for managing testing and data systems in many U.S. public schools (read: monopoly through NCLB). After all, their web site — and some of the press they and similar companies have received — made it seem like their service was the best thing since sliced bread, especially for students and families who would otherwise be unable to afford services usually reserved for those from the privileged classes. And don’t all of our students deserve these benefits? This is their pitch, anyway.
Upon first glance at TutorVista.com’s site, I was impressed with the statistic that they’d sponsored over 5.6 million online tutoring sessions. If I had the skills and education, I could apply to be a tutor, working from the comfort of my home, making extra income. Scrolling down the page, I became less than impressed with the credibility of the site, as it asked me to “Read what some of our tutor’s say about being an online tutor.” Ironically, according to the site’s main page, most subjects are available for tutoring, though one would expect a multimillion dollar multinational company to proofread its web pages — even if they are aimed at recruiting employees for whom English is a second language.
Errors notwithstanding, I was curious to see what would happen if I responded to TutorVista via email. Here is the correspondence:
To Whom It May Concern:
I read about your company after reading about a similar British company in a New York Times article. You may wish to have one of your tutors, or one better familiar with the English language, proofread both your Home page and the Apply Now page, as there are errors (misplaced apostrophes and incorrect words) on them. I would expect a more professionally written page from a Pearson owned company. Such errors do not lend very much credibility to a tutoring service.
Thank you for your interest in TutorVista.
We are sorry to inform you that as per our business requirement, we are currently only considering candidates based in India. In case there is a change in our requirement and we look at candidates from abroad, your candidature will definitely be considered.
Thanks & Regards
My assumption is that although there are many qualified teachers in the United States who could work for TutorVista, a subsidiary of Pearson, they would rather outsource jobs to India. Interestingly, I never asked about a position tutoring; I only wrote to draw their attention to inaccuracies on the site.
So what is the purpose of sites like this? According to TutorVista, they have received press both in the U.S. on NBC and in the U.K. on the BBC, major television outlets. Do they exist to fulfill a need? Are such companies serving to both exploit cheap foreign labor while teaching to the tests written by the same companies who write and/or facilitate them? Is any real learning happening or are students merely “learning” how to prepare to choose the best letter on a standardized test? After all, TutorVista prepares students for SAT and AP testing.
Are we affording our students opportunities for success, or are we merely funneling them further into a system of standardization?