Outsourcing homework to India

April 5, 2010

India-BookThis article by Saritha Rai originally appeared in Globalpost.

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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

16 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

A key skill in the future for American kids will be learning to address other cultures on their own terms or at least meeting in the middle. I see nothing wrong with this trend but “awesome” and donuts may not be necessary.

Posted by JeremyJohnson | Report as abusive

I remember studying some times all night for final. Learning is about hard work, discipline and endurance and above all a gift you do to yourself. It would be better to pay for your diploma.

Posted by axiom321 | Report as abusive

Exploitation of the Indians? Second nature to some Americans. Wait until kids start “learning” U.S. history via said, uh, Passage to India.

“What a wonderful world this could be…”

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

I don’t see anything wrong with this way of learning. I have seen and read worst things off the internet, so its good to see some positives are coming out of the internet. This is a win-win situation for both sides, American’s students got the help they wanted, while jobs are filled in India.

Posted by Noobist_2612 | Report as abusive

So what, exactly, is the justification for America’s economic hegemony? Are American students harder-working or smarter than those in the “developing world”?

American industry and business interests have a headstart, but Americans need to wake up and stop resting on their laurels.

Posted by compsci | Report as abusive

American teachers are simply not up to the task. Those who are have given up trying to teach uncouth American brats. They get their pay check and leave the profession first chance they get.

Indians on average receive a far better education because kids respect their teachers and their teachers go the extra mile to help them. As for American brats, it would have been better if their mothers aborted them.

Posted by JohnG-73645 | Report as abusive

My son scored an A grade in math and could secure a good college because of Tutor Vista. I am not saying that they are the best but the model of remote online learning works. Of course a US based good quality math teacher would have been better if we could afford $100/hr instead of $100 a month for unlimited tutoring.

Posted by adsmith | Report as abusive

Are they going to replace our formal education system? No way. I do not think they are even planning that. They are only planing to provide assistance to students who cannot afford personalized tutors. And this is neither going to change the US education system nor going to affect jobs of our teachers. Only thing they can change is quality of our students and that will be good for us.

Posted by andymn | Report as abusive

I am a single parent and trying to meet both ends meet by holding two jobs. I want to give my fifteen yearold , best possible chance in life – something I did not get. Have been using TutorVista service for last 9 months . You can rave and rant all you can but give me an affordable solution for my Claire before preaching global theories.
Ultimately its my kid and my money and what I want her to become. Dont care what form , shape , religion , geography the help comes from.

Posted by Gary007 | Report as abusive

The site claims around 5 million sessions. Even if they have only 80% of this in the US (they are only there in the US and UK), 4 million sessions is huge. Each session is between half an hour to one hour. This means 3 million hours of personalized teaching. They are more popular than I thought.

Posted by vd2901 | Report as abusive

Good site. Will try it.shows how Internet and technology has transformed what was once a face to face , personalized service into a virtual one. If they execute well , this can be answer to our education crisis – affordbale personalized education using teacher’s from different geographies. They seem to have great pedigree and reputed backers as investors.

Posted by john1963 | Report as abusive

As a teacher who occasionally tutors on the side I really see nothing wrong with this. Families spend huge sums of money for AP/IB/SAT preparation every year. It makes little difference whether it goes toward a work book, a class, a private tutor or a web-based company in India. It’s great that these students are showing this kind of initiative to achieve academic excellence. I applaud TutorVista for filling a need in our market. Perhaps the students might even learn something about multiculturalism.

Posted by msmith223 | Report as abusive

This is good.

Posted by joylands | Report as abusive

Good way to use global resources to improve our school education challenges. With this if we can give our children a strong grounding in subjects like Math , we could lay a strong foundation at school levels. Else , we will continue to depend on countroes like India , China and Koreafor technical , software skills as we do now.

Posted by Vallanceg | Report as abusive

This is great, as long as tutors are not helping kids too much by doing their homework or taking their exams having a help in understanding subject better is always a welcome sign.

Posted by nxbalas | Report as abusive

Tutor Vista has been very helpful for my son. It is all about need and affordability. My son had the need and I couldn’t afford $40 an hour. Tutor Vista bridged the gap very nicely. Of course, I would love one on one session here at home for my son but it is one session too far in money terms.

Posted by essen | Report as abusive

[...] Source Tweet this! [...]

[...] get unlimited help with English, math, or science from TutorVista, a network of Indian teachers, Reuters reports. That’s a fraction of the $40 an hour your average American home tutor [...]

[...] score of the 99th-percentile student is higher than that of 99 per cent of the cohort.” * Outsourcing homework to India (Apr 5, 2010 Global Post)  Excerpt follows… BANGALORE, India — Six days a week in the [...]