UI students offer tutoring service not affiliated with university


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Thomas Hornbeck and Hung Tran saw an imbalance in the University of Iowa's tutoring world.

"We've both been tutors," Hornbeck said. "There is a huge and invisible market. These students can't find the tutors. The ones who hold the knowledge are all busy."

In April 2011, the two computer-science Ph.D. students began working on a solution — Tutor Universe.

The new business is a combination of a Facebook-like platform and online auctioning sites such as eBay. The goal, they said, is giving students and tutors a place to find their perfect match online — potentially allowing students to reach out globally.

The service — set to launch later this month — will be available only to UI students and prospective tutors from the university, though Hornbeck and Tran have plans to expand it to other schools eventually.

"Finding the right tutor really affects the students' performance," Hornbeck said. "A lot of times, they aren't getting everything they need from these classes, and they need the extra help."

Tutor Universe's business plan won third place in the University of Cincinnati Spirit of Enterprise Graduate Business Plan Competition — one of the most competitive in the nation — last weekend.

This was the first UI team to enter the competition.

UI students have access to many tutoring services on campus — both free services and private ones — ranging from writing centers to math and science tutorial labs. Overall, the UI offers 10 different services covering different areas of study.

Tutor Universe is not affiliated with the UI. But Penny Kaelber, the coordinator for the UI's Campus Information Center and Tutor Referral Service, said Tutor Universe's lack of tutor-training requirements may impede students who use it for university classes.

"One of the priorities that we have with [the official UI tutor] service is making absolutely sure that all of the tutors that are with us have a B or above in all the classes they want to tutor in," she said.
UI student tutors must also have at least 56 hours of college credit, she said.

Michelle Nakaue, assistant director for the UI Rhetoric Writing Center, said she's fine with students looking for tutoring from non-university sources.

"I think there is a lot of demand and the demand is much greater than what any service on campus can provide," she said, noting the center must occasionally turn students away. "I think that anyone who wants feedback on their writing should be able to get it, and if there is a service that someone is offering, I personally don't have a problem."

The Rhetoric Writing Center assisted more than 2,000 students last semester with programs including face-to-face tutoring, online tutoring, and the Writing Fellows Program — a curriculum-based peer tutoring program.

But Tran and Hornbeck said they don't envision their plans taking away any of the UI's or local area's tutoring business.

"[But] we are trying to do a real thing," Tran said. "The story is very simple. We are Ph.D. students and wanted to start a business. We are working hard to help a lot of people, not just in the U.S., but people around the world."

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