Malayalam speakers in Cochin tutor Americans in English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Sep 7 13:15:57 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,  September 7, 2005

A Tutor Half a World Away, but as Close as a Keyboard

COCHIN, India - A few minutes before 7 on a recent morning, Greeshma Salin
swiveled her chair to face the computer, slipped on her headset and said
in faintly accented English, "Hello, Daniela." Seconds later she heard the
response, "Hello, Greeshma." The two chatted excitedly before Ms. Salin
said, "We'll work on pronouns today." Then she typed in, "Daniela thinks
that Daniela should give Daniela's horse Scarlett to Daniela's sister."
"Is this an awkward sentence?" she asked. "How can you make it better?"

Nothing unusual about this exchange except that Ms. Salin, 22, was in
Cochin, a city in coastal southern India, and her student, Daniela
Marinaro, 13, was at her home in Malibu, Calif. Ms. Salin is part of a new
wave of outsourcing to India: the tutoring of American students. Twice a
week for a month now, Ms. Salin, who grew up speaking the Indian language
Malayalam at home, has been tutoring Daniela in English grammar,
comprehension and writing. Using a simulated whiteboard on their
computers, connected by the Internet, and a copy of Daniela's textbook in
front of her, she guides the teenager through the intricacies of nouns,
adjectives and verbs.

Daniela, an eighth grader at Malibu Middle School, said, "I get C's in
English and I want to score A's," and added that she had given no thought
to her tutor being 20,000 miles away, other than the situation feeling "a
bit strange in the beginning." She and her sister, Serena, 10, a fourth
grader at Malibu Elementary, are just 2 of the 350 Americans enrolled in
Growing Stars, an online tutoring service that is based in Fremont,
Calif., but whose 38 teachers are all in Cochin. They offer tutoring in
mathematics and science, and recently in English, to students in grades 3
to 12.

Five days each week, at 4:30 a.m. in Cochin, the teachers log on to their
computers just as students in the United States settle down to their books
and homework in the early evening. Growing Stars is one of at least a
half-dozen companies across India that are helping American children
complete their homework and prepare for tests. As in other types of
outsourcing, the driving factor in "homework outsourcing," as the practice
is known, is the cost. Companies like Growing Stars and Career Launcher
India in New Delhi charge American students $20 an hour for personal
tutoring, compared with $50 or more charged by their American

Growing Stars pays its teachers a monthly salary of 10,000 rupees ($230),
twice what they would earn in entry-level jobs at local schools. Critics
have raised concern about the quality of the instruction. "Online tutoring
is not closely regulated or monitored; there are few industry standards,"
said Rob Weil, deputy director at the educational issues department at the
American Federation of Teachers. Quality becomes a trickier issue with
overseas tutoring because monitoring is harder, said Boria Sax, director
of research, development and training for the online offerings of Mercy
College, based in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

Growing Stars is rapidly expanding to accommodate students from the East
Coast, Canada, Great Britain and Australia. Its recruits, mostly with
recent postgraduate and teaching degrees, already have deep subject
knowledge. They must go through two weeks of technical, accent and
cultural training that includes familiarization with the differences
between British English, widely used in India, and American English. "They
learn to use 'eraser' instead of its Indian equivalent, 'rubber,' and
understand that 'I need a pit stop' could mean 'I need to go to the loo,'
" said Saji Philip, a software entrepreneur of Indian origin and the
company's chairman and co-founder who works in New Jersey.

Still, the cultural divide is real. In Cochin, Leela Bai Nair, 48, a
former teacher who has 23 years of experience and is an academic trainer
for Growing Stars, said she was "floored at first when 10-year old
American students addressed me as Leela. All my teaching life in India, my
students addressed me as Ma'am," she said. That same morning in Cochin, an
English teacher, Anya Tharakan, 24, directed her student away from the
subject of video games to concentrate on a passage from "Alice in
Wonderland," enlivening the lessons with puzzles and picture games.

Ms. Tharakan, who tutors Serena Marinaro among others, said a bit of the
cultural gulf was being bridged when students asked her "How big is your
home?" or "Do you have friends at work?" or "Can you send me your photo?"
For her part, Ms. Tharakan is learning about soccer and rap music from her
students. Thomas Marinaro, a chiropractor in Los Angeles and the father of
Daniela and Serena, had been unhappy with the face-to-face tutoring he had
previously arranged for his daughters at home. After three months with
Growing Stars, however, Dr. Marinaro said the girls' math skills were
already much improved. As a bonus, it cost a third of what he paid the
home tutor.

Dr. Marinaro said that he had misgivings when he first considered
enrolling his daughters for English tutoring. "I thought, how could
somebody from India teach them English?" But after a few weeks of
monitoring, he said he relaxed. "I want my girls to develop a good
vocabulary and write better, and I believe they are learning to do that."
Biju Mathew, an Indian-born software engineer, set up Growing Stars after
moving to the Silicon Valley five years ago to work for a technology
start-up company. In India, he had been paying $10 a month for
twice-a-week tutoring sessions for his children. In the United States, he
found, a similar service could cost $50 or more per hour. The idea of
homework outsourcing was born, and the company began offering its services
in January 2004.

Growing Stars has been cautious, offering its students a choice of United
States- or India-based tutors for English. It charges a $10 premium above
its normal $20 rate for students who choose a tutor in the United States.
When parents have expressed concern over a tutor's accent, the firm has
offered a change of instructor. Other online tutoring firms in the United
States adopt varied approaches., for instance, uses only tutors
based in North America.  SmarThinking of Washington, D.C., has tutors in
the United States but also has instructors in South Africa, the
Philippines, India and Chile.  However, only those in the United States
provide English lessons. "We haven't found any cultural divide," said
SmarThinking's chief executive and co-founder, Burck Smith. Eliminating
factors such as skin color, appearance, gender and accent made the
Internet "more egalitarian than most classrooms," he said.

The demand for online tutoring is reflected in the firm's 50 percent
growth rate in the last few years. Twenty new clients - including high
schools and colleges - have signed on for tutoring beginning this fall.
Firms like Growing Stars are aggressively looking to expand their online
tutoring under federal programs. This summer, for instance, Growing Stars'
tutors ran a successful pilot for the Upward Bound program at Marist
College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

The program, financed by the federal Department of Education, helps
children of high school age get into college. With the start of the
academic year this fall, Growing Stars expects to provide online tutoring
in math to 80 students from Marist's Upward Bound program. Also, the firm
has just been approved as a licensed tutoring provider in California under
the federal No Child Left Behind law. Currently, Growing Stars is trying
to find a way for its teachers to be fingerprinted by the Department of
Justice to meet legal requirements of the program. Mr. Philip, the
chairman, said his company's work would help make Americans more

"Offshore tutoring," he said, "is a step toward ensuring that we are not
always beaten in competition against Japanese carmakers, Indian software
firms and Chinese manufacturers."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list