Monday, July 9, 2007

Online Tutoring and VOIP

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is the use of two-way, voice communication – like a telephone – over the Internet. This technology has been around for a decade or so. For online tutoring, though VOIP will be a common feature in the future, its past and present have been characterized by more hype than usefulness.

Why the hype around voice? People are accustomed to being tutored in-person, implying the use of voice. Therefore, voice is assumed to be a required element of tutoring. It is not. Tutoring requirements for math and other subjects are the efficient communication of symbols (it’s hard to describe the quadratic equation over the telephone), graphing and drawing ability, and text input. In fact, when students are being tutored effectively, there are lengthy pauses while students and tutors are working through problems. The presence or absence of voice has no bearing on the length of these pauses. So, for the most part, VOIP neither increases the quality or efficiency of communication. It is simply more familiar. Though SMARTHINKING will offer voice in a limited capacity in some subjects starting in January, we have provided hundreds of thousands of tutoring sessions without it. In fact, VOIP can cause more problems than it solves. Among the challenges of VOIP are:

  • Technical support – The number of students needing help with headsets, microphones, sound cards, bandwidth, processing capacity, voice installations, and simply turning the volume up, is significant.
  • Bandwidth – Using VOIP requires more bandwidth than a whiteboard or chatroom connection. With the increase in broadband penetration, this problem is diminishing, but it is still present in dial-up and shared bandwidth connections.
  • Archiving (Memory) – A whiteboard tutoring session can be archived by saving a single image or series of images. When a voice track is added, the memory needed for archiving increases exponentially.
  • Archiving (Quality Control) – A tutoring session saved as an image can be reviewed in a couple of minutes or less. A voice track requires the reviewer to listen to the entire tutoring session (an average of 25 minutes long).
  • Software installations – VOIP usually requires an installation of a program – rather than a flash or java download – onto the student’s computer.
  • Glitches and Voice Quality – For many users, VOIP can result in tutors and students talking over each other, waiting for the other to speak when the other doesn’t realize it, and other barriers to the tutoring interaction. With students already frustrated with their academic work, adding communication and technical frustration can be the last straw.

For the most part, online tutoring companies that do use VOIP require students to install software locally, sometimes give away headsets and microphones, and do not archive tutoring sessions. Installation of software requires a significant amount of forethought on the part of the student/buyer. Shipping of computer accessories dramatically inceases cost and also requires forethought. The lack of archiving impacts quality control and dispute resolution procedures. Students using services that provide on-demand support to struggling students, like SMARTHINKING’s services, typically do not have the time or the patience to go through a significant installation process at the same time that they are struggling with their homework. Requiring such installation serves to limit, rather than increase, the number of students using these services.

Having said all of this, voice may be a requirement for effective live tutoring in some subjects. Foreign languages, for instance, would seem to require voice. However, on the whole, lack of voice has had no adverse effects on student tutoring demand or satisfaction. Once VOIP becomes embedded into operating systems and browsers and voice input devices (headsets and microphones) are standard computer accessories, it will be interesting to see whether students choose to use, or not use, VOIP. This is getting closer and closer to reality as more computers come with Bluetooth connections that can integrate with mobile phone ear-pieces. However, for now, in SMARTHINKING’s experience, VOIP serves to limit the market for tutoring rather than expand it.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tutoring can be expensive, but there are several companies offering unlimited tutoring for under $100 per month and I was wondering if you have any experience with them. I’ve come across a number of online tutoring websites (e.g. tutor.com, homeworkhelp.com, tutoreasy.com, www.schooltrainer.com, etc.). Has anyone prepared a comparison of the various companies (pricing, quality, etc.)?

Burck said...

To my knowledge, no 3rd party has conducted a side-by-side comparison. Obviously, we've done such things internally, and we think we're the best value. We've tried to get Consumer Reports interested in such a study but, so far, without success.

Anonymous said...

What do you make of a NY-based tutoring company's recent boast on their Website that their tutors are "Certified Tutors" (as in, the tutors have passed a 90-day probationary period)? Is there any state or national certification process for tutoring?

Burck said...

First, the only certification processes that I am aware of are those offered by College Reading and Learning Association (CRLA) which certifies programs (not individual tutors) and the one offered by the National Tutoring Association (NTA). Both programs rely on self-generated or self-gathered information to support certification. So, in our opinion, while completing these certification processes represents a seriousness of purpose by the program or individual, neither is a particularly good judge of tutoring quality. So any claim of "certification" with regard to tutoring is, at best, marketing palaver.

Second, it seems like a pretty low bar to jump over to pass a 90-day probationary period. This "certification" doesn't hold much weight.

Nishant said...

Hi Burck
Being a director and co-founder of an online tutoring company, it is compelling for me to write something on this voice issue.
I have covered the whole comment list from you one by one:

******************
Technical support – The number of students needing help with headsets, microphones, sound cards, bandwidth, processing capacity, voice installations, and simply turning the volume up, is significant.

***I agree with this and I believe that in future, it will be inevitable for online tutoring companies to work with voice. As far as Smarthinking is concerned, the major reason that I believe for conducting lessons without voice is the Indian origin of instructors who are not voice and accent trained******

******************
Bandwidth – Using VOIP requires more bandwidth than a whiteboard or chatroom connection. With the increase in broadband penetration, this problem is diminishing, but it is still present in dial-up and shared bandwidth connections.

*****Within a year or two, this broadband penetration is bound to increase and the problems are going to vanish. My own company has conducted all the lessons till now only with voice and students find it more useful and human than without voice*******


*********************
Archiving (Memory) – A whiteboard tutoring session can be archived by saving a single image or series of images. When a voice track is added, the memory needed for archiving increases exponentially.

****There is no need to save the voice. It is sufficient enough to save the text********


*******************

Archiving (Quality Control) – A tutoring session saved as an image can be reviewed in a couple of minutes or less. A voice track requires the reviewer to listen to the entire tutoring session (an average of 25 minutes long).

****Even while conducting a session with voice, you can only save the image part. So quality monitoring can still be performed in the same way*********



*******************

Software installations – VOIP usually requires an installation of a program – rather than a flash or java download – onto the student’s computer.

****Our voip simply works on the java download. Nothing else required*******


**********************
Glitches and Voice Quality – For many users, VOIP can result in tutors and students talking over each other, waiting for the other to speak when the other doesn’t realize it, and other barriers to the tutoring interaction. With students already frustrated with their academic work, adding communication and technical frustration can be the last straw.

*****No more glitches as most of the students now have broadband and the voip is real time without lag******

In summary, voice should not be used when:
1. The instructors dont have a good accent - natives of countries like India
2. The infrastructure in terms of internet connection is not good at your Indian supplier's end

Your focus should be to outsource the tutoring to only 1 or 2 major players in India rather than outsourcing it to a large number of small tutoring companies working with only 5-10 tutors.


I would be more than glad in fact to invite you to one of our trial sessions, where you can actually see how things go smoothly with voice.

I would be curiously waiting for more of your posts and comments...

Regards
sinha.nishant@gmail.com

Burck said...

First, as I mentioned, we will be offering voice in some subjects starting in January. Second, I think everyone agrees that VOIP will be the future, but the present is a different story. Third, if you agree that, even when done well, VOIP presents a lot of technical support issues then you acknowledge that many students will be frustrated when trying to access a service. For a drop-in service like SMARTHINKING's, this is particularly important. Students come to us the moment they need help. If we add technical frustration to their existing academic frustration, they won't stay to get the help they need.

Actually, accents are probably the least of the issues as all of our tutors, overseas and domestic, are English speaking and are very well educated. As for archiving, you simply dismiss the notion that voice needs to be archived. Why? Won't things be said in a voice session that won't show up in text or in an image file? If that's the case then, from a quality standpoint you are missing something. And, maybe more importantly, from a reporting and liability standpoint, you are missing something. Lastly, while many students do have broadband, many students still don't. Among college students, those that are less likely to have broadband are the ones who are not on campus, like adult learner and commuters. If you don't build your service for the lowest common denominator, you are excluding a large part of your market.

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Nishant said...

Hi Burck
Greetings of the day!
I agree with you regarding the frustration part of a student who is looking for an immediate help. In fact I am able to figure out a major difference due to which our perspectives are different.
There are 2 kinds of markets and models broadly:
1> B2B (Business to Business)
2> B2C (Business to consumer)

In the first case companies work with schools, libraries etc like tutor.com or smarthinking.
In the second case, companies work directly with students and parents.

Now, as far as your B2B model is concerned, students come for an immediate help and so attending to their issue quickly is more important than to frustrate them with voip etc.

We mostly work on B2C model where we have regular students, studying for a complete course curriculum or preparing for some exam. In this case voice is really important. No frustration is there as the student stays with us for a longer term.

That's why companies doing B2C in US/UK have preferred us as an outsourcing partner.
Though we have lot of B2B partners also.

Regards
Nishant

scott said...

I've been using voip with my online tutoring classroom for close the past 4 years.

The biggest issue with voip is setting up students computers to make their microphones work.

It's a big pain in the butt!

The good news is that once you get it set up, it works great.

Scott Palat

www.TutorFi.com