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Outsourced tutors just an ocean away

perspective College freshman wonders what it would have been like to get high school academic help the modern way--from tutors in India.

Every Saturday morning of my junior and senior years in high school I awoke at 7:15 (often after my mother dragged me out of bed) so I'd be on time to my extremely expensive academic tutoring sessions, each of which cost about three times as much as a small luxury sedan.

A lot can change in two years.

Memo to parents of today's high school students: Put away that checkbook, stop shopping for that second mortgage and forget selling organs on the black market and hunting under couch cushions for spare change to pay for those tutoring services. The world of Web 2.0 and the global economy have merged once again, this time to deliver online tutoring sessions that can cost less than a tank of gas (though these days, that isn't saying much).

The catch: Your tutor will be thousands of miles away and will probably speak with an Indian accent.

TutorVista.com, one of several global tutoring programs, offers 24-hour online tutoring services for students in all grades through high school. The programs cover a wide variety of regular school subjects as well as a plethora of standardized tests.

The icing on the cake: Services can be purchased for $20 per hour or $100 per month for unlimited hours, a rate that seems dirt cheap when compared to the going rate for private tutors, who often cost more than $100 an hour.

The catch: Your tutor will be thousands of miles away and will probably speak with an Indian accent. But this person will not fit the stereotype of Apu from "The Simpsons": The new Indian is tech-savvy, contemporary and, most important, educated.

TutorVista.com relies on a combination of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony, instant messaging and a toll-free fax number, allowing review of printed materials, and an electronic blackboard, alowing an almost seamless communication between tutor and tutee.

Before programs like TutorVista, tutoring was reserved for the wealthy and those willing to tighten their budget for luxuries like eating, running water and electricity. These companies bring the service into almost anyone's living room.

If I had an overseas tutor in high school, my education would have been a lot different. For example, instead of squeezing tons of subjects and standardized-test preparation into a one-hour tutoring session, and then struggling through extra material at home, I could have spent a more appropriate amount of time with my tutor on a wider variety of subjects. Also, although not nearly as important, my family might have been able to pay our electric bill.

For today's youth, crossing international borders during everyday online activities is becoming commonplace. Whereas the typical suburban teenager 50 years ago might have fit the "Happy Days" stereotype--eating burgers at the malt shop, wearing American-made clothes and attending a high school that focused almost exclusively on Western culture--it now seems normal to wear clothing and talk on cell phones made in Asia, drive a German car and eat Indian food. Today most students can name more varieties of sushi than they can justices on the Supreme Court.

While the primary goal of overseas tutoring is to provide a cost-efficient, reliable service, a really cool side effect is--potentially, at least--the ability of both tutors and tutees to gain exposure to other cultures. But there are aspects of international tutoring that can make it feel like an unbalanced cultural exchange.

For example, according to a Yahoo News article, one tutee said her only problem with the long-distance tutoring program was her difficulty with her tutor's accent. As a result of comments like these, tutors are taught American slang and trained to speak with American accents. While this may make communication somewhat easier for the students, it suggests that a Westernized approach to teaching is the only appropriate one. But taking the "Indian" out of "Indian tutor" and Westernizing the tutoring service dilutes what might have been a richer cultural exchange.

Still, these services are remarkable. They illustrate one of the ways the global economy works, and they provide an excellent model for how current technology can be used to bring young people together in the name of education, one of our critical resources.

Of course parents, who might get excited about saving money on tutors whose services cost less than a Big Mac, shouldn't get too excited. Getting your child into an Ivy League school is one thing; paying for it is another. Tutors may be getting cheaper, but the cost of a Harvard education will probably rival the GDP of Croatia by the time your teen graduates high school.