PRESQUE ISLE, Maine— When people think of tutoring, they may picture two students at a desk with books in front of them. In the past, it would have been inconceivable to picture a student in Presque Isle tutoring another 42 miles away in Houlton, but that image is now reality at Northern Maine Community College.
The Presque Isle campus has introduced a high-tech tutoring system that allows students looking for assistance with coursework to sit down at home or elsewhere and meet with someone on campus who can help.
Using Skype software and a webcam, NMCC Academic Success Center tutors and students are connecting in a way that is innovative, convenient and just as effective as traditional face-to-face sessions, according to campus officials. The Skype software application allows users to make voice calls over the Internet. The callers can see and talk to each other with their computers.
Laura McPherson, director of the NMCC Academic Success Center, said Friday that the online distance tutoring was introduced this semester to enhance existing student support services and to reflect the busy and diverse lives of the student body. It also was conceived to lessen the geographic distance and climate challenges that often make it difficult for students in northern Maine to seek academic assistance.
McPherson said the idea for online tutoring came about because of one of her student tutors, Mariah LeMieux-Lupien. The tutor was ill but she didn’t want to miss a day of class. Pam Buck, the computer-aided drafting instructor, allowed LeMieux-Lupien to attend class by Skype with the help of fellow student Robert Williams.
“He turned his laptop around so that she could see what was going on, and she could hear everything the instructor was saying and could participate in class,” she said. “So I thought about it and wanted to do the same thing with tutoring.”
McPherson said the college recognizes that many of its students live off-campus and have to travel a significant distance to class.
“You have to be able to move with the times,” she said “If you stay static, then you are really not meeting students where they are. We have a large number of nontraditional-age students with young families, work responsibilities and other circumstances that make it very difficult or impossible for them to travel to campus outside of class for help. We also have students that live far away from campus, including those who take courses through our off-campus centers in Houlton and the St. John Valley.”
McPherson launched the program by demonstrating it to students in informational miniworkshop sessions last month. Students learned how to download free Skype software and operate the webcam. Demonstrations showed how students could use the technology to do everything from solve an algebraic equation to review an English writing assignment.
“A little bit at a time, more students who need tutoring are taking advantage of it,” she said Friday. “Especially now that there is snow on the ground. If you live 30 or 40 miles from campus and it’s cold and snowing or you have a sick child, it is great to just sit in front of your computer and meet with your tutor and get your homework done. It lessens travel time, and it cuts down on expenses for students as far as gasoline.”
Kristopher Bouchard of Houlton recently took advantage of the program to get help with trigonometry homework from tutor J.R. Kierstead.
“It was different at first, but once we got going it went very well,” said Bouchard. “It was very helpful to me. We were able to work through the problem by writing the steps down and showing our work back and forth by holding it up to the webcam. It was the next best thing to sitting down next to one another.”
Kierstead said he sees tutoring using real-time communication technology as having some benefits over traditional in-person sessions. It is both convenient and results in more effective and efficient use of time, he said.
“I have found that it creates a much more structured environment,” he said. “By communicating using technology, the time seems to be much more focused on the student’s part.”
McPherson said the academic success center was busy Friday, occupied by students coming in for help with papers that are due and studying for exams.
“We normally experience more than 2,000 student visits per semester,” she said. “Our tutors help with 40 different subjects. This is just another tool that we have to make sure that we are helping them be as successful as they can.”
The NMCC Academic Success Center also uses social networking sites and instant messaging systems to communicate with students about workshops, tutoring sessions and to offer tips. Students can connect with the center through Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo Messenger and the center’s blog.
Skype tutoring sessions are being offered 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday. Those hours may change and-or expand in the future to accommodate student users. Future expansion of the program may include incorporating a new beta version of Skype that can connect multiple sites and allow individuals to see everyone participating in real-time discussion. This feature would allow for group tutoring sessions from students at various locations.