Outsourcing homework to India
BANGALORE, India — Six days a week in the wee hours of the morning, Saswati Patnaik logs into her home computer. The homemaker — and tutor for a Bangalore company called TutorVista — rises early to help American high school students write English term papers, prepare S.A.T. essays or finish homework assignments.
Outsourcing, of course, started as a way for American companies to lower costs by shifting work to cheaper locations. After nearly two decades, that practice has become so mainstream that hundreds of U.S. businesses — from Wall Street banks to law firms, architects and others — routinely outsource to India.
But now a growing number of individual Americans are following in the footsteps of businesses — and outsourcing homework. For $99 a month, American customers of TutorVista get unlimited coaching in English, math or science from Patnaik or one of her 1,500 fellow tutors. Similar personalized services in the United States charge about $40 an hour.
“The economic downturn has pushed education to the top of the average American family’s monthly household budget,” said Krishnan Ganesh, CEO and founder of TutorVista. “More Americans feel that education is their only safety anchor, the only thing that can help them stay competitive in this world.”
The company’s customers are overwhelmingly from the U.S., but Canadians, Koreans, British and Australians also sign up for lessons. To meet this growing demand, TutorVista is adding another 1,500 teachers across India in the next few weeks. To be sure, homework outsourcing is no longer a novelty. Several Indian companies offer the service, operating like call centers with tutors sitting in a common office. But companies like TutorVista are now extending the trend directly from the homes of Indian tutors to those of American students.
Technology has already made communication seamless from anywhere-India to anywhere-United States, said CEO Ganesh. There is no stopping the trend now.
On this particular morning, Patnaik is working with students from Atlanta and New Jersey. She logs into the TutorVista portal, using webchat to greet her student. “Hello, Brittney,” she says. Her student responds back immediately. They switch to audio, and Patnaik asks, “How have you been?” A polite sentence or two later, she queries, “How may I help you today?”
The ninth grader has a quiz on Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” the next day. The two discuss the novel and its characters. Patnaik probes Brittney on a few chapters and asks her several questions. She writes the themes in the novel on the digital pad and they discuss as the words show up on their respective computer whiteboards.
Among the Indian tutors working for TutorVista are fresh graduates looking for an opening in a slack job market, stay-at-home mothers, and women with young children, retired professionals and even those confined to their homes by illness or other circumstances.
Saswati Patnaik, for instance, says she made her career choice because she is homebound for health reasons.
In small Indian towns such as Kasargod in the south and Faridkot in the north where career choices are limited, these outsourcing jobs have become an important new source of income. Teachers can earn from 10,000 rupees (more than $200) to twice that sum, depending on the hours and the grades they teach.
American teenager Maureen Baker, a high school senior in New York, says she enrolled with TutorVista a year ago because her father felt it would give her better control over time and resources. Baker is in an advanced program in math and science.
At peak times, TutorVista’s teachers coach 2,500 American students in one-to-one sessions that last between 30 minutes to an hour. On an average day, the company serves about 3,500 students.
The slight communication barrier, an occasional technological problem and the quality of tutors present a challenge for the students, said Baker. But there are many advantages, she said. “I have my share of tutors who do an outstanding job and make the sessions enjoyable and productive.”
Tutors like Patnaik say some of the students are outstanding but many do not focus enough. “American kids don’t face the kind of academic pressure that Indian kids have to cope with both at school and at home,” said Patnaik, who has been tutoring for more than two years.
Older teachers face a culture shock when the kids they are tutoring call them by their first names or criticize them openly. In India, teachers are seldom faulted and always respectfully addressed “Ma’am” or “Sir.”
There are other wrinkles as well. For instance, TutorVista has to steer its tutors away from India’s rote learning system to the more open, interactive American way.
Still, that hasn’t mollified some critics (mainly teachers in the U.S.), who have raised concerns about the quality of instruction and the lack of uniform standards and testing. For its part, TutorVista says bridging cultural gaps presents its own share of challenges — like, for example, conversing with American teens. So in the next few weeks, Indian tutors will learn to use “awesome” as praise, and illustrate a math problem using donuts instead of mangoes.
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Pictured above: A vendor arranges books by the roadside in the old quarters of Delhi August 20, 2006. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi