British Kids Log On and Learn Math — in Punjab


LONDON — Once a week, year six pupils at Ashmount Primary School in North London settle in front of their computers, put on their headsets and get ready for their math class. A few minutes later, their teachers come online thousands of kilometers away in the Indian state of Punjab.
Ashmount is one of three state schools in Britain that decided to outsource part of their teaching to India via the Internet. The service — the first of its kind in Europe — is offered by BrightSpark Education, a London-based company set up last year. BrightSpark employs and trains 100 teachers in India and puts them in touch with pupils in Britain through an interactive online tutoring program.

The feedback from pupils, the schools and parents is good so far, and BrightSpark said a dozen more schools, a charity and many more parents were interested in signing up for the lessons. The one-on-one sessions not only cost about half of what personal tutors in Britain charge but are also popular with pupils, who enjoy solving equations online, said Rebecca Stacey, an assistant head teacher at Ashmount.

But the service also faces some opposition from teacher representatives who are fearful that it could threaten their jobs at a time when the government is pushing through far-reaching spending cuts. The 3 percent that is to be cut from the budget for educational resources by 2014 might be small compared with cuts in other areas, like welfare and pensions, but money at schools will remain tight.

Online learning is still controversial in Britain. Some teachers said tutors based elsewhere lacked the cultural empathy and understanding of a pupil’s social environment that could influence study habits and performance. There is also concern about the qualifications of teachers abroad.

At the same time, many parents said they had struggled to find qualified private tutors who were conveniently located and whose fees were affordable. With online learning, they can keep an eye on their children’s progress by listening to the lessons, and many said that being taught by someone in India also opened the children to foreign cultures.
But Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, Britain’s largest teachers’ union, said he was concerned about the precedent BrightSpark was setting. “This is wrong on so many levels,” Mr. Keates said. “What next — do without maths teachers? What about the follow-up lessons for the pupils, and the interaction with teachers?”

Tom Hooper, the founder of BrightSpark, said teachers’ unions were missing the point. “This is supplementary and in no way replacing teachers,” he said. And Ms. Stacey was quick to point out that Ashmount was using BrightSpark’s program in addition to, and not instead of, its traditional math classes.

“For children, it’s a novelty that catches their attention for longer and engages them in a different way,” Ms. Stacey said. “Eleven-year-olds aren’t always enthusiastic about math classes, so any way we can make it more fun for them is good.”

BrightSpark tutors in India are math graduates or former math teachers and go through a month of training on the British school curriculum. Pupils in Britain log on to the service via BrightSpark’s Web site and interact with their teachers via a video phone and a so-called white board on their computer screen, which can be written on by both parties. Lessons can be booked as long as 24 hours in advance for any day of the week, and all sessions are recorded and can be replayed by the pupil or the pupil’s parents.

For Marie Hanson, who runs the charity Storm in South London, the online teaching tool is helpful in keeping children away from drugs and crime. “The kids love it because they love computers,” said Ms. Hanson, “and I love it because it helps them with their education while keeping them off the streets.”

An earlier pilot project for four months with 30 children was successful after parents reported that their children had improved at school, said Ms. Hanson, who plans to seek government funding for more sessions.
Mr. Hooper, 31, said he had discovered there was a market for online teaching in Britain after he quit his job as investment manager at Aberdeen Asset Management and took time off to travel. In Panama, he met several U.S. families who had used online learning to give their children an education that would allow them to return to U.S. schools without problems.

When he returned to London, Mr. Hooper realized that there was a shortage of qualified private tutors in Britain and that some parents spent hours driving their children to and from tutors, sometimes paying £20, or $31, per lesson. BrightSpark is charging £12 per session and pupil. Tutors are being paid £7 an hour, more than double the minimum wage in Punjab.
“There is a huge thirst for support in the U.K.,” Mr. Hooper said. “That, combined with a huge pool of skilled and available academics in India — it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the potential.”

Mr. Hooper is aware that offering teaching services from India in Britain could be controversial and that there might be concerns about the quality of the teaching, foreign accents and the impersonal nature of the Internet.

Britain — like Europe as a whole — is also less accustomed to outsourcing such services than is the United States, where similar one-on-one online tutoring from India has existed for the last five years, offered by companies like India-based TutorVista, in which the British publishing company Pearson owns a stake. BrightSpark is also unique in selling its product to schools in addition to single pupils.

Europe’s desire to outsource services in general had been lagging behind the United States, said Martyn Hart, chairman of Britain’s National Outsourcing Association. “There is social resistance because outsourcing here is always coupled with unemployment,” said Mr. Hart.

Mr. Hooper said he hoped BrightSpark’s product would eventually make outsourced services more popular in Britain and quash concerns among some teachers that it threatens their jobs.

But there is little doubt that online learning increases competition, at least for some in the education sector. Lola Emetulu, a trained lawyer who now works as an office assistant, said that she used to drive her 11-year-old son, Jesse, to his private tutor every Saturday but that “it just took so much out of your day.” She recently signed up to BrightSpark and said she preferred the flexibility.

Jesse said he preferred it, too. “It’s better on the computer,” he added. “The teacher doesn’t know you that much, so he takes it easier on you.”

Taken from the New York Times:

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