Cram for that Exam with Help from uProdigy’s Tutors in India

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accepted, Hussain says. They’re then trained on using Skype and on the quirks of interacting with American college students. “For example, in India, pupils refer to their teachers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam,’ never by their first name,” says Hussain. “Here, they do. It’s a little different dynamic.”

UProdigy tutors cover math, the sciences, economics, and English (including writing). Subjects such as American history are, understandably, less well represented (and Hussain says the company may eventually hire tutors in more countries, including the United States, to fill the gaps). UProdigy splits the $15 per hour fee with its tutors. Hussain wouldn’t reveal how much of the fee the tutors keep, but he did say that at the going rate for tutoring in India, full-time tutors usually earn about $300 a month. “That comes to about $1.15 per hour,” he says. “We pay our tutors significantly more than that.”

UProdigy started beta testing last October, and went fully public on Monday, with ads in selected college newspapers around the country. The company hasn’t hit the venture-capital trail yet—that will have to wait until after uProdigy has gotten its student clients through the spring semester, Hussain says. But the judges for the MIT Executive Summary Competition—the second of three phases in MIT’s prestigious, year-long $100K Entrepreneurship Competition—thought enough of uProdigy’s pitch to award it the $1,000 first prize on February 8. (Now Hussain and crew will go on to compete for the big $100,000 prize for the best student-submitted business plan, to be awarded in May.)

In the fall, says Hussain, the company will switch its users from Skype to another conferencing system that it can more easily enhance and upgrade. And many more technological advances in remote learning are coming down the pike, Hussain believes. “We’re just seeing the beginning,” he says. “I think over the next five years you’re going to see a revolution in the way that humans interact with computers and therefore with each other. As we move away from interacting through a keyboard and a mouse and toward interacting with computers in a way that’s more natural to us, I think more and more learning is going to go online.”

The key to uProdigy’s business plan, of course, is that it’s using the Internet to bridge an inefficiency in the market—the disconnect between students who need academic assistance and the skilled educators they can afford to hire, who, in this case, happen to live ten-and-a-half time zones away. Obviously, there is quite a bit of sensitivity in this country over perceptions that highly skilled jobs once filled by U.S. workers are being “offshored” or taken over by educated but lower-paid workers in other countries, such as India and China. (In fact, my recent post on the scuffle between IBM and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative over an MTC economic report that indirectly suggested IBM was offshoring U.S. jobs prompted an outpouring of complaints from disgruntled IBM employees who say the company is doing just that.) But Hussain argues that uProdigy isn’t engaged in offshoring, since it’s offering a service (inexpensive off-hours tutoring) that isn’t really available in the United States.

“No one is losing a job as result of this,” he says. “Oftentimes there’s nowhere for students to go at 4 in the morning. And students can’t really afford tutors at $60 or $70 an hour anyway. This is going to enable students to get more tutoring and be competitive in math and science and writing.” (About the writing part—Hussain says uProdigy went to India in part because the average academic there has a command of English to which most U.S. college students can only aspire.)

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering about Hussain’s own interrupted education, don’t worry—he’ll get back to it eventually. “I love learning about the philosophy of religion,” he says. “My hope is that after four or five years of this, I’ll be able to step back, hire a new CEO and go back to school.”

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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