Learning online with a computer tutor

Students around the region and beyond can now link to the web-based classes form Trinidad. James Fuller logged on

  • Patrick Lawrence, marketing and promotions. Photograph courtesy Caribbean Tutors
  • Jonathan Francois, operations director. Photograph courtesy Caribbean Tutors

Two young entrepreneurs are bringing a new concept in education to the Caribbean: online tutoring.

Online tutoring is the educational equivalent of the business conference call. Up to 10 students go online from their own homes, linking to the host site to participate in a classgiven by a teacher at a remote location.

“You can see, hear and speak with your teachers live, just as you would in a regular class, except notes are digitally downloadable and you can further your learning at your own convenience,” says 23-year-old CaribbeanTutors.com co-founder Patrick Lawrence.

“We saw that there was a need to make education more accessible…There is no traffic to contend with, nobody has to travel late at night, so there is the safety aspect as well. And this way, you can reach people in other countries.”

Indeed, since June 2007, CaribbeanTutors.com (the region’s first online school) has taught over 530 students in 12 Caribbean nations, with the largest enrolments coming from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana. These students are primarily 15- to 18-year-olds studying any number of up to 13 CXC (Caribbean Examinations Council) subjects.

“We get a lot of students coming to us for the two months before their exams to receive additional tutoring. This is primarily how we see ourselves, not as an alternative to conventional schooling, but as an addition to it.”

Lawrence is the company’s director of marketing and sales. He and his business partner Jonathan Francois (also 23) are working on expanding the service to offer Secondary Education Assessment, A-Level, Cape, and computer literacy lessons. They have also recently become Microsoft associates, allowing them to teach Microsoft’s MCSC (Microsoft Certified Support Centre) and MCSA (Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator) programs fully online.

The concept is proving popular not only with younger students but with their parents as well.

“The classes give parents the chance to become more involved in their child’s education, as they can literally see how their children are progressing. Actually, many parents have then decided to take part themselves and pursue their own learning. In fact, about 25 per cent of our students now are mature students.”

So what is the online tutoring experience and how do you get involved?

“Students sign up for their required course and pay, giving their details and e-mail addresses at that time,” explains Lawrence, who studied economics and finance at Port of Spain’s Roytec. “We e-mail that information to the teachers, who then send an e-mail link to the student. One click on this link, at the specified time, will start the class.

“If you’re early, you go into an online waiting room where you can chat with other students waiting for the class.

“When the teacher arrives the class starts. You will see him/her appear on the left-hand side of the screen and there will be an introductory message on the whiteboard, which covers most of the remainder of the screen. During the lesson everyone can interact and write questions or queries on the whiteboard. This will highlight areas the teacher needs to revisit. The whole key is interactivity.

“It’s all designed to be as relaxed and fun a learning environment as possible. We limit each class to 10 students so that the personal aspect is not lost and everyone can join in.

“All you need to take part is high-speed Internet and a set of headphones. The courses give three hours of tutoring each week, which is either taught in one three-hour block or two of one-and-a-half hours each and the cost is US$35 per month per subject.”

CaribbeanTutors.com, run in partnership with the Institute of Tertiary Tutors, is based in Maraval, Port of Spain, Trinidad, and all 35 lecturers on its roster have more than five years’ training and experience.

After a hectic first year, the two entrepreneurs are not taking their foot off the accelerator, but plan to expand their business beyond the Caribbean.

“We have been getting attention from people far out of our region, including the US, UK and even Saudi Arabia. Students from South and Central America are also requesting information on our language and computer classes. Currently we can’t give them the same service we give our own region, but we are working out the logistics.”

And Lawrence has a message for those who might be a little wary of learning online.

“All I would say is: try it. It is a lot easier and more fun than people might imagine and it’s a great way to further your education from the comfort of your own home. For convenience that’s hard to beat.”