NetTutor is a Web-based online tutoring service. The NetTutor website, trademark, and interface technology are owned by Link-Systems, International (LSI), a privately-held distance-learning software corporation in Tampa, Florida. NetTutor went live in 1996,, making it possibly the first private online tutoring service to provide tutoring in which the learner could choose tutoring that is either synchronous (tutor and learner live simultaneously) or asynchronous (learner submits questions and receives tutor response, similar to email). LSI also developed, maintains, and leases hosted access to the proprietary Java-based whiteboard-style interface (the WorldWideWhiteboard) with which NetTutor conducts tutoring in both modes. All NetTutor operations — tutoring, management, and technical support — are conducted at LSI’s main office in Tampa..
Link-Systems International was launched in 1995 with the goal of making academic resources available on the Web. The company was incorporated in the State of Florida on February 27, 1996. Net Tutor was the firm's first product and went live later that year. LSI began to lease the technology supporting NetTutor (also under the NetTutor name) in the following year.
NetTutor was apparently the first online tutoring service to integrate with textbooks. Access to NetTutor, for instance, has been packaged with certain McGraw-Hill math, science, and accounting books since approximately 1997. Over the subsequent years, NetTutor has been packaged with higher education textbooks published by John Wiley and Sons, Pearson, Cengage Learning, and Bedford, Freeman and Worth.
Research on the NetTutor interface
- Early research into NetTutor was conducted by educators eager to employ technology in their own teaching. Consequently, it focuses on technical issues such as usability and robustness, but also on the ability of participants to express themselves in effective online discussion of specialized subjects, especially mathematics. A study at Hampton University in 1999 concluded that NetTutor could effectively support such activities as online office hours.
- The whiteboard-like nature of the NetTutor interface (today marketed separately by LSI as the WorldWideWhiteboard®) became known for offering tools to support subject-specific online chat and to illustrate concepts. In 2004, researchers at Stony Brook University found that "[d]espite some flaws, according to our research NetTutor remains the only workable math-friendly e-learning communication system."
- Similar results were found using NetTutor technology and tutors at Utah Valley State College (in a study describing the use of NetTutor as "[o]ne of the earliest synchronous models for math tutoring]") and at the University of Idaho, in a study beginning in 2005 — showing increasing acceptance of Web-based online tutoring in the university setting.
Breadth of usage
- By 2007, LSI claimed that its NetTutor tutors had conducted over one million online tutorial sessions.
- The service has expanded from its initial ties with the textbook publishing industry and now directly reaches learners in a variety of environments, such as at college-track high school programs, for-profit schools, programs associated with the labor movement, public universities, and community colleges.
Learners acquire access to NetTutor either by
- direct purchase of tutoring time from the NetTutor website
- purchase of a textbook which has NetTutor support package with it from a publisher, or
- enrollment in a school or specific courses in a school which has chosen NetTutor as the vendor for either a limited or unlimited amount of tutoring for its students.
The NetTutor service is typically integrated into an existing virtual learning environment such as a publisher Web portal, a learning management system like Blackboard, Moodle, or Sakai, or else into a specific campus tutoring website requiring the student to enter special access codes.
NetTutor assistance is of the "academic-assistance" type. Conversations take place in a shared virtual whiteboard environment. In addition to providing for the free placement of text on the screen, the whiteboard is equipped with a toolbar for inserting math, chemistry, accounting, or English proofing symbols. Learners may submit their writing or questions for tutor review, or may choose an available live tutor and engage synchronous discussion. Learners may save or print out their live tutorial sessions, but live tutoring is exclusively one-on-one, so that the possible benefits of a discussion involving a group of peers (see, for instance, Jacques, et al., in Learning in Groups: A Handbook for on and off line environments (2007)) are not directly available.
This mode of access opens NetTutor to several criticisms, such as the accusation that tutors have an interest in exhausting the tutoring hours paid for, in order to get them to purchase more, or, on the other hand, that the tutor may rush the tutorial session by providing an answer to do more sessions and enable the learner to engage in academic dishonesty. NetTutor claims to have elaborate tutor vetting and training programs. In addition, LSI agrees upon detailed tutoring guidelines with representatives of its institutional clients. This differentiates NetTutor sharply from sites such as Student of Fortune, the founder of which describes academic dishonesty in online tutoring as "something that is definitely going to happen.".
Recent research published about NetTutor suggests that offering students the use of online tutoring as a resource in a traditional "brick-and-mortar" setting leads to an increase in student persistence and achievement.
Controversies surrounding online tutoring
LSI, apparently in response to several controversies that surround the use of distance education and online tutoring, has taken some measures to assure users of the academic value of NetTutor. The main issues are shown in the table below, with an explanation of each. LSI claims that NetTutor answers each concern, as shown. It can be seen that, even with these policies, there may be extensive due-diligence requirements, the responsibility for which may fall on the user of the service.
Online tutoring concern NetTutor response Comment regarding adequacy of response Tutor academic qualifications Tutors may not be qualified to discuss questions learners ask. Internal qualifying exams, academic requirements, and a percentage of the tutoring staff hold doctorates in the areas they tutor. Individual qualifications of tutors may or may not be sufficient to guarantee adequate academic support in a given tutorial session. Tutor online communication skills Online tutors need excellent and verifiable pedagogical and communication skills. Ongoing tutor training is conducted face-to-face and monitoring is constant, since all tutors work on the LSI premises. This approach assumes that LSI is able to hire adequate local talent. Online tutoring reflection of course Online tutor may not be committed to the learner’s goals All goals, textbooks, and other resources are immediately accessible to tutors. Tutors could possibly exhaust learners’ access time in looking up questions and resources. Online pedagogy vs. academic dishonesty Online tutor may simply give answers or writing edits to students, rather than assist in the learning process. Specific guidelines are drawn up and shared with users; tutors are bound by these guidelines, and one requirement is that tutors assist learners rather than dispense answers. This needs to be a two-sided process; that is, educators must be able to criticize and revise guidelines to insure relevance to a specific topic or learning situation. Education vendor vs. education professional Online tutor may simply be there, may elongate tutoring sessions, etc., to collect the learners’ money Tutors are background-checked and must be qualified educators with proven records of success at tutoring prior to hiring at LSI; records of tutorial sessions are available to the user upon demand. Educator or parent would verify that the dedication shown by NetTutor tutors to learners’ goals. Technology learning curve Students may need assistance in using the NetTutor interface There is a Customer Request link on the main NetTutor web pages; also, LSI has developed multiple technologies and hosting platforms and these have been tested for user-friendliness in various learning environments. Perhaps this is not as great a concern today as when NetTutor began, but educators and parents should acquaint themselves with LSI customer service and other LSI technologies to verify the company's claims. Learner frustration with asynchronous tutoring Learner may use a non-live, asynchronous tutoring mode, expecting the "answer" in return. Instead, the tutor may respond with a clarifying or Socratic question, or may suggest further research on the learner's part. This is the pedagogically correct way to proceed; the learner has the choice of interacting with a live tutor and submitting questions for review. Learners need to be clear on what type of help they will receive; it may be up to educators or parents to assist with this.
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