When we started Compass in 2004, we entered familiar territory. The founders had worked together before, having started California’s first in-home one-on-one test prep company in 1989. Back then, we were among only a handful of firms in the country to move test prep out of large classrooms and into thousands of individual homes. Plenty has changed around us in 25 years, but our core service offering remains the same: making tutor house calls. From day one, we have strived to have the right tutor at the right time in the right place for the right program, for every single client. We are educators first, but logistics experts too.
Tutoring in Unexpected Locales
Our air traffic control towers are in Larkspur and Beverly Hills. We maintain two bustling regional headquarter offices but most of our effort happens in the field, face-to-face, across Northern and Southern California. From decades of school and college counselor relationships and powerful word-of-mouth among parents, we are a household name in most California households. Still, a few clients every year are surprised to hear that we can indeed come to them. So while it’s common to send tutors to Piedmont and Pasadena, Los Altos and Long Beach, Mill Valley and Malibu, it’s also not unusual to serve students a little further away: Valencia, Pomona, Dana Point, Napa, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, and beyond.
So what’s changed since 1989, or since 2004? Well, for starters: the SAT (multiple times), the college admissions landscape, the test prep industry, students’ lifestyles, parents’ expectations, and gas prices. Oh, and technology. So while most of our tutoring is still done the old-fashioned way – paper and pencil, one-to-one, face-to-face – technology has allowed us to reach well beyond our local radiuses. Over the last several years, Compass and the world market have inevitably discovered one another, and technology has brought us together. Once an off-shoot, online tutoring is now a viable and necessary solution for some and a preferred template for what will someday be commonplace for many more.
Providing First-Rate Prep, Online
Like our nearby students, college-bound teens and their parents around the globe are in search of top-notch educational support. High stakes testing for a selective admissions process helps drive this demand, and the savviest of the bunch know where to find help. A Zurich-based American family found out about Compass from reading reviews on The Berkeley Parent Network. “Raising children overseas”, Barbara Johnson explained, “I found the site to be most helpful. I felt the Berkeley parents have high standards so if they recommended Compass, I thought it would be a good fit. Compass’s approach was just what I was looking for to efficiently cater to our daughter’s specific needs. With the technology worked out, it was easy.”
Our students are all over the map, and so are their reasons for being so. Some just happen to live there. And “there” just happens to be Alaska. Or Michigan, Oregon, Nevada, Iowa, Illinois, North Carolina, New Jersey, Delaware, and Missouri. Even families who live in hotbeds of educational resources – like Boston and New York City – have expanded their search and opted to work online with us for a range of specific reasons and requirements. Others attend boarding schools in remote New England towns or sports academies in isolated areas. Some are living abroad temporarily during an important phase of high school and want to ensure that their test preparation is not compromised. And just like in San Francisco and Los Angeles, local word-of-mouth travels quickly in tight-knit communities in cities around the world.
In recent years, Compass has successfully prepared students “in-home” in Rio de Janeiro, London, Bogota, Heidelberg, Moscow, Hong Kong, Paris, and more. James Clark, a father in Alberta explained his rationale for choosing to have his son work online with a California firm. “My work colleague in California recommended Compass to us. We are British living in Canada so knew very little about the SAT process. We probably could have looked for a local tutor but I was so impressed by your knowledge and helpfulness that we decided to look no further. We needed to set up tutoring very quickly and being able to arrange sessions online made this much easier to do. Finding a tutor in our specific area who was available when we were would have been almost impossible. I was amazed how quickly Compass was able to respond to our needs.”
Mr. Clark added, “The experience was excellent. With lessons carried out online, it was really no different to having a tutor right there with him. Being a teenager, my son is very comfortable communicating on screen, and his computer was all set up to do so. This was a very straightforward option for him.”
Surprising Benefits of Online Tutoring (for Families and Tutors)
While it’s impossible to perfectly replicate the dynamic of in-person private instruction, the online format provides some unanticipated benefits. Ms. Johnson agreed. “Working online was no issue at all. In fact it was significantly more convenient. It was great to not worry about travel time. We had regular meetings on Sunday evenings, which were Sunday mornings in California. Because of this, I feel the pool of available tutors was broader.” And accessing that pool – and the management infrastructure around it – was what mattered most. “Teenagers are used to technology, so remote learning was no problem. I looked into actual online tutoring companies, but I wasn’t sure about the quality. Your tutors for both of our daughters were so professional, knowledgeable, and patient. Compass was consistent with outstanding tutors and always receptive to our needs. Whenever we wanted anything, it was sent immediately.” More eye-opening feedback: a few clients have gone so far as to say their students were more comfortable meeting online than they would’ve been with in-person sessions.
Tutors love it too. Tim, a Compass tutor, describes his experience. “Technology allows me to have a video chat from San Francisco to Europe while also screen-sharing a whiteboard where I show notes using a stylus and tablet with no delay. With a less motivated or more easily distracted student, the lack of physical presence might have an impact, but I’ve had very engaged students. This is a viable alternative to live tutoring because of the internet speed and connectivity. Building rapport isn’t a problem because teens are pretty comfortable with online video chatting.” Tim also appreciates the flexibility of scheduling that comes with international programs. “I am able to have lessons at times of the day when normally I could never fill a session.”
Flexibility for tutors goes even further for some. Justin, a long-time Compass tutor, recently moved away from California but regretted the thought of leaving Compass. “I was ecstatic when I was offered the chance to continue working for Compass two years ago. Leaving the Bay Area, I knew I would be outside the company’s footprint. However, my move coincided with the expansion into online tutoring and I was able to continue without interruption.” For Justin, tutoring has not only continued, it’s flourished. “I can fit more sessions into my schedule and more easily absorb some uncertainty on my students’ ends, when school or sports run late. And what has surprised me most is how similar it is to in-person tutoring. High school students communicate electronically through text messages, social media, and applications. For them, it is completely normal to meet with someone who is sitting somewhere else.”
Compass’s Institutional Resources Make Online Tutoring More Successful
Tutors and clients alike feel that the organizational, full-service support they get from Compass is even more valuable when programs occur online across time zones. As Justin explains, “Most of what is available to students and tutors who meet in-person is available online. Visual and audio clues are the same. The ability to sketch math problems and share textbooks still exists. The sense of meeting with someone is still felt when the student and tutor reserve their attention for the session and not for anything else. However, tutors enjoy a few more resources in this format. Online explanations of concepts are immediately available. Homework assignments and future lesson times can be recorded in writing for both student and tutor. Software allows artistically challenged tutors (like me!) to produce much better representations than with pen and paper.” Tim adds, “All the luxuries of working for Compass are still enjoyed when tutoring online. And our students benefit because Compass has stronger, more up-to-date experience with American standardized tests. I suspect they would have trouble finding that in a local tutor in many places.”
While there are not too many noted downsides, our remote students can’t quite experience everything Compass offers. For one, they can’t access Compass’s weekly proctored practice tests. But recently one student was in the Bay Area visiting family over the holidays, so we made sure she came to one of our proctored events for the experience. She shared that there was a proctored practice test for American students at her school at one point, but the proctors had no idea what they were doing!
Finally, is there any side benefit from this emerging aspect of the job? “I think my fondest memories generally involved the opportunity to get a glimpse into the world of American teenagers living and studying abroad,” Tim shared. “We would often have fun moments comparing cultures. Due to their international educations, they often need extra help identifying idiomatic errors. We would have a running gag that was a lot of fun and that I think energized our sessions. Rather than discouraging, it was fun and motivational.”