- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

Today's student has several avenues to education, including home-schooling, working in the traditional classroom, using the computer or a combination of the three. Academic institutions and the business sector continue to develop technology to serve these teaching methods.
One of the latest efforts, e-Sylvan (www.esylvan.com), incorporates an online environment with in-person tutors to offer students in grades three through nine a chance to hone their skills in reading and mathematics. The Baltimore-based company has been online since May, and its president, David Graves, took a few minutes to discuss the magic behind the fee-based initiative and his views on education.
Q: Is getting an education online really worth pursuing?
A: Online supplemental education is the absolute future because there are so many trends that support it from families with dual incomes and more than 60 percent of all moms working outside the home. There are also more after-school and civic activities that parents and children are involved in, meaning that there is a need for a defined curriculum that can be accessed when it is convenient for the student and parent.
So the future of online supplemental educational programs is tremendous, however, the challenge was to be able to harness the technology and the home environment to work together and to be able to achieve the same results that we see in our one-to-one classroom teaching.

Q: How are you achieving that goal?
A: By providing the online student with a real, fully accredited, certified and experienced teacher that can work with the child.
The hardest part of this was finding a way to deliver the instruction so that the majority of families and schools could retrieve it. This meant creating a system that could be delivered to the more than 60 percent of the homes that are still using 56K modems and dial-ups.
The solution we found was to streamline HTML content pages using only 2 to 4 K of bandwidth and creating a voice solution that would allow for a two-way dialogue.

Q: The student also uses some fairly specialized hardware?
A: When the parent signs up for the program they receive a Graphire 2 tablet set which is designed to offer students the ability to communicate and express ideas. The tablet set comes with a pen, or stylus, that when it is used with the provided e-Sylvan software, allows the child to work, drawing or writing on the table as they would a piece of paper, and for the teacher to be able to see what they are writing.
Also included is a headset that allows the student to speak and hear the teacher. This is all fairly easy to install and we often hear that the students, not the parents, do the installations.

Q: What does the student see on-screen?
A: There were some very specific goals for the computer screen. It had to be iconic and easy to understand in order to be useable by the broadest range of students. The resultis that computer screen interface is fairly easy to understand.
The teacher is identified for the student [through a picture] in the top left corner of the screen, because the students are working with a specific person to whom they have to be accountable.
The tool bar offers basic options draw, text, highlight, erase, block and scratchpad.
The teacher presents the problem, which appears on the computer screen. The child can write or draw on the whiteboard in the same manner as they would a piece of paper, only the teacher is able to see what they are writing.

Q: How many students does each teacher work with?
A: This is one aspect of our program that I am very proud of. Teachers usually work with two students at a time, though our guidelines state that teachers will work with no more than three students during any one session. This ensures that the students get the instruction that they need.

Q: Where are the teachers based?
A: Ninety percent of our teachers work from home. This allows us to be able to work with stay-at-home parents that have their teaching certificates and/or working teachers that are looking for supplemental income. The teachers must have a broadband connection.

Q: How does the student contact the teacher?
A: One-hour instructional sessions are scheduled for a set time. Students sign in and are connected to their teacher for that session. During the instructional hour, the teacher verbally interacts with each student to introduce lessons and concepts, review the student's work, support the learning of difficult skills, and offer verbal praise and encouragement to the student.
Students have the opportunity to work on both teacher-directed and independent activities within each instructional hour. If the student wants to get the teacher's attention, they can click an icon to verbally raise their hand or tell the teacher the assignment is finished. They can also send "chat" or text messages to the teacher.

Q: Can the teacher ever be totally replaced with computers and video equipment?
A: We have no desire to remove the teacher. The teacher is the most important element in the learning process. There is a lot of learning content that you can access, however, the live teacher provides individualized instruction that is unique to the child and that can be adapted to the child's learning progress.
Additionally, children relate to someone talking to them, interacting with them, giving the positive feedback that is real. Basically, we have harnessed the highest levels of technology available to the broadest audience possible with the goal being to deliver a highly personal, one-on-one, educational experience.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC, 20002; or send e-mail ([email protected]).

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