Website offers alternative to cheating

Studyloft.com is offering online tutoring in math and sciences. The new upstart, which launched late last year, offers two services to its customers: ChalkTalk, a live session with a tutor, and Homework Help, where students can upload assignments and have them returned with comments within twelve hours. All of the tutors at studyloft.com have advanced degrees in their respective subjects, and for several areas of study, tutors are available at all hours of the night. When I logged on at 2:30 AM, I found two available tutors waiting to help with any math questions, from basic algebra to Calculus IV. For all of their services, studyloft.com charges 18 dollars per hour, billed by the minute based on the time spent in the live session, or the time a tutor spends making comments on uploaded homework assignments. According to the company’s founder and CEO, Bikram Roy, its main competitor, SmartThinking.com, charges 35 dollars per hour for similar services. For prospective users, the website offers a six dollar credit for opening a new account – twenty free minutes to try the service. Roy told the Cynic in a phone interview that his company’s two big draws are “convenience and discreteness.” Roy explained that with an anonymous website, students can ask questions on their own time in their own homes, and “can be much more open with [their] questions.” After a student finishes a session with a tutor, or receives a completed homework assignment, a window appears with the option to provide feedback, so that Roy and others can continually improve the quality of the student sessions. Roy explained that each live session is also recorded and reviewed internally to ensure the quality and accuracy of the information provided. In addition, tutors receive bonuses from the company for positive ratings from the students they help. One of Roy’s chief concerns in offering an online tutoring service is plagiarism – in each returned homework assignment, the website includes the following stipulation: “Your use of the information and solutions provided by studyloft.com and the consequences thereof are your own responsibility.” Roy told the Cynic of several cases where students asked tutors to complete take-home tests, and the company declined. In researching this article, I logged onto the website to investigate the quality of the services provided. I participated in several ChalkTalk sessions, and submitted a sample homework assignment for feedback. In my first 30-minute live biology session, one of the company’s biggest problems immediately surfaced: the speed of the tutors. According to Roy, the company is “constantly practicing” with its tutors to improve the speeds at which they type, and he confessed that “sometimes it seems like they’re not as fast as [the company] need[s] them to be.” When scheduling a chat session, students have the option to upload files prior to the appointment, which Roy says will help tutors answer questions more efficiently. When submitting my simulated homework assignment, I first uploaded the word document onto the website. Then, about fifteen minutes later, I got a quote for how long it would take a tutor to complete – thirty minutes, which would translate to nine dollars. A few hours later, my completed homework assignment had arrived, complete with full explanations and visual aids. Each section of the homework assignment reprinted the question, selected the correct answer, and explained the reasoning, using visuals when necessary. The amount billed to the student reflects the actual amount of time the tutor spent on the assignment – Roy told the Cynic that tutors’ quotes were usually “pretty accurate” in relation to the final price. After a homework assignment has been returned to a student, or a ChalkTalk session has been completed, studyloft.com puts the completed assignment or the log from the chat into a special student archive which can be accessed at any time, so students can review their sessions later on in the semester for help. Worried about payment? Studyloft even has a special link in each account that allows students to email their parents to beg for cash, entitled “Ask Mom for Payment,” where parents can make secure payments to the site for their children.