Thrice a week sharp at 7 pm, 15-year-old Delhi girl Shilpa Trivedi puts on her headphones, gathers her notes and logs in to her Skype account. She connects to the call that rings out, switches her laptop camera on and spends an hour dissecting complex questions with her biology
Till last June, Trivedi attended a popular South Delhi tutorial class. But when her favourite teacher left the coaching class, she felt her motivation slipping. A chance visit to a friend's house while he was in the middle of an online tuition class with an ace tutor hooked her on to a new way to learn.
"It's been brilliant," Trivedi said. "There's no going back for me."
Across India, thousands of students like Trivedi are transitioning from conventional face-to-face tuitions to myriad online avatars that offer a win-win deal to tutors and students. Viewed as little more than tech gimmicks by many Indian educationists when they started in the mid-2000s, online tutorials are now here to stay, commanding a market of Rs. 1500 crore, which industry chamber ASSOCHAM estimates will grow to Rs. 3500 crore by 2015.
On the way, the industry faced speed bumps but recovered. Poor broadband speeds and low internet penetration - only 10% of India's population can access the web - still limit the reach of online tuitions. But internet access is improving and Kapil Sibal's telecom ministry plans to connect 2.5 lakh villages on a fibre optic highway.
For Rajiv Shah, the benefits are impossible to ignore.
The Ahmedabad class XII student is preparing for Indian Institute of Technology admissions with the Delhi-based Vidyamandir coaching classes - online. "I can get the best tuitions available without having to travel to a different city," said Shah.
After taking over the coaching class in 2010, Educomp Solutions - one of the country's first and largest e-tutorial providers - expanded the Vidyamandir imprint online to 22 cities. Like Shah, students in these cities go to designated centres, where they study long-distance with the Delhi institute's famed teachers.
"We see this market as the future," said Chandan Agarwal, Educomp business head.
The other big advantage online tuitions offer both students and service providers is the cost. Unlike the physical space and infrastructure that traditional classrooms require, online tutorials only need internet connectivity.
This allows e-tutors the chance to earn more than they could demand traditionally or by offering their services at conventional coaching classes, while at the same time charging lower than what students need to pay for face-to-face classes.
But the journey for the sector hasn't only been smooth.
The first online tutoring firm based out of India was launched in 2006, by serial entrepreneur Krishnan Ganesh. TutorVista has since grown to today reach 20,000 students across the world. The youngest student is a 6-year-old from the US, and the oldest a 65-year-old from South Korea learning English.
About 2000 Indian students also use TutorVista, but Ganesh has expanded onto other online tutorial techniques than just one-to-one or classroom-simulated live online sessions. "We believe this approach is better suited to India."
One of the reasons why firms like Ganesh's or Educomp are offering a bouquet of online tutorial options - including a focus on packages that schools can use during formal class hours - lies in the origins of the industry itself.
The India-based online tutoring industry was born out of a demand from the US in the middle of the previous decade, when the Bush administration pushed through the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy.
Under the NCLB, federal funds flow to schools that show an improvement in their results, especially with students from traditionally weaker backgrounds. This encouraged schools to turn to additional tuitions - at cheap rates - for their students.
"Many schools turned to Indian teachers who could offer tuitions long distance, online," Agarwal said. But as the NCLB lost steam, the demand for Indian teachers also dropped. "That's when we realized that we needed to broaden our approach."
But the NCLB - and its effects on the industry - mainly affected the major online tutoring firms.
Lalita Jain, studying for her PhD in math at Jaipur University, manages to supplement her stipend by teaching school and undergraduate students online, sitting at her desk in her apartment.
"My elder sister, like me, funded her own studies by offering tuitions," Jain said. "But she needed to visit homes of students. I don't. That's a big difference, especially as a woman."
Students benefit by saving on the travel too - even if the tutor is in the same city. Trivedi's biology tutor is also in Delhi, but the class XI student saves "at least an hour and a half" every tuition day on travel.
There are pitfalls too. Students need a lot more self-discipline than in physical classes. And the camaraderie of a classroom can be missing in one-on-one online sessions.
But for students like Trivedi and Shah, online tutorials today offer opportunities to dream of a better future.
"It works for me," Shah said.
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