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October 1, 2014

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EDUCATION:

Instant wisdom: Tutoring sites offer quick help for struggling students

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Sam Morris

Tutor Michael Christenson explains a math problem to Aidan Swenson during a tutoring session in the Swenson’s home Saturday, May 31, 2014.

Math Tutoring

Ciara Swenson ponders a math problem with tutor Michael Christenson during a tutoring session in the Swenson's home Saturday, May 31, 2014. Launch slideshow »

Karen Nokley's 17-year-old daughter was struggling in her physics class last fall.

So Nokley did what generations of thoughtful parents have done: She began looking for a tutor.

Years ago, Nokley would have scoured bulletin boards at a local library or community college, torn off phone numbers and called around to find a tutor.

However, Nokley and her husband took their search online. And on wyzant.com, they found Michael Christenson, a structural engineer-turned-tutor. After a year of tutoring, Nokley's daughter, Adrianne, improved on her physics tests and labs at Shadow Ridge High School.

“It was way easier,” Nokley said of her search. “The web has made everything easier nowadays. (Wyzant is) a great tool for parents to have.”

As websites like yelp.com changed how patrons find good restaurants, websites like wyzant are transforming how students connect with great tutors.

Wyzant, which is pronounced “wise ant” and features a glasses-wearing ant in its logo, is one of the largest websites nationally that connects students with tutors. Since it was founded in 2005, its online network has grown to more than 73,000 tutors who teach some 240 subjects to more than a million students across the country.

Wyzant is part Facebook, part Yelp. Tutors have a profile page featuring a picture of themselves, a brief resume and student feedback. The website features more than 850,000 student and parent reviews of tutors.

Parents can search Wyzant for tutors in Las Vegas by price, distance and rating. Once connected, parents can schedule tutoring sessions and pay tutors through Wyzant, doing away with the typical cash and checks. Wyzant makes money by charging a transaction fee.

“You can pull up the bios, read the reviews and get to know a little more about the person before you hire them,” Nokley said. “Before, we only had a phone number and a name.”

In addition to user reviews, Wyzant allows parents to conduct a criminal background check on its tutors, which brings up felony, misdemeanor and sex crime convictions within the past seven years. Parents can pay an $8 fee for the background check. Profiles list when the last background check was conducted.

The background checks were a big selling point for Darren Swenson, who used the website to find a tutor for his two young children, 12-year-old Aidan and 10-year-old Ciara.

After poring over several profiles and conducting interviews, Swenson chose Christenson, who had strong reviews, to teach his children, who are considered gifted students at a local charter school.

“The background checks provide another level of comfort,” Swenson said. “We're talking about an individual coming to our home to work with our children.”

For tutors such as Christenson, tutor websites help them publicize and market their services to more students and families. The former structural engineer became an adjunct professor at CSN and a private tutor when the construction industry tanked in the recession.

Christenson estimates he'll make about $15,000 this year from tutoring. He charges students about $40 an hour.

Since 2012, Christenson has taught upwards of 50 students. The majority of them were referred from Wyzant.

“I do get some referrals offline, but most people find me through Wyzant,” Christenson said. “It's been great. I like figuring out where students are and accelerating them to where they need to be.”

Wyzant, which recently raised $21.5 million in venture capital investment, is looking to expand into new markets and roll out new features that allow tutors to teach entirely online. Currently, tutors such as Christenson still teach at the libraries and homes, but that's quickly changing.

Ryan Swank, 33, tutors students online on tutor.com, which is the digital version of traditional homework help centers.

Students who are stumped on a homework problem can log into his virtual classroom and receive help through instant message, file-sharing features and a digital whiteboard. With sites like tutor.com, students can seek academic help anytime — and long after the school day is over.

Swank, a former classroom teacher who recently moved to Las Vegas from Maine, said he tutors about 20 students a week on tutor.com. Swank said he enjoys the flexibility of tutoring on his own schedule and believes students can benefit from the online teaching experience, which can be more interactive and engaging.

“It can be a richer experience than maybe the traditional way,” he said. “But the fundamentals are still the same. That hasn't really changed.”

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