THE cubicles in the office of Educomp Datamatics in west Delhi look like those of any Indian call centre. Men and women sitting in front of computer screens with headphones on.
It is 5pm, the normal start of an evening shift. Only, they are not answering credit card queries or providing information on bank balances. They are teaching students in California and Colorado mathematics.
Welcome to the latest 'big thing' in outsourcing.
American schools desperate to improve their students' maths grades are hiring Indian companies who provide tutors at a fraction of the cost of American tutors.
These tutors sit in New Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore helping youngsters with their maths homework or going over already-learnt concepts so that they do not lose ground during the holidays.
'The world over, parents have a problem helping their kids with maths homework. The kids need help. It's painful. If they can go to their computer and get someone to guide them and help them, it's a huge relief,' says Mr Shantanu Prakash, chief executive officer of Educomp Datamatics.
Excelling in maths
SOME tutors speak on the headphone to American students as they explain concepts, or guide them through problem-solving using a whiteboard and digital pencil so that one side can see what the other is writing. Others - such as Educom Datamatics tutors - do not offer a voice service. Here, the tutor and student communicate only by writing on the white board as they go through the stages of solving a problem.
This new form of outsourcing makes sense for a simple reason. It's a gigantic generalisation, but Indians, on the whole, tend to be good at maths. It explains why so many Indians write software. India did, after all, invent the zero. (It reached European civilisation much later through the Arabs).
American school children, in contrast, tend to do badly in maths. According to US statistics, about 40 per cent of seventh grade children fail in maths and English.
It's this failure rate that prompted the Bush administration's 2002 law - the No Child Left Behind Act. Its goal is to improve results by holding schools responsible for student performance.
If schools do not improve their pass percentages, they lose state funds. They have until 2014 to meet the 100 per cent proficiency goal.
Schools unable to improve their performance on their own have been turning to American tuition companies for help. Known as Supplemental Education Service providers, they are expensive. Some of the bigger ones - Tutors.com, Smart Thinking and eSylvan - charge US$40 (S$66) an hour.
Using the same logic as other companies in the West which have outsourced their back office work to cut costs, these providers are now outsourcing tutoring to Indian companies such as Educomp Datamatics which charges US$20-25 an hour.
The phenomenon is so new - about a year old - that only four to five Indian companies so far provide online tutors. So far the only market they are targeting is the US.
'It's just so vast. We're just warming up. But there is a huge dearth of tutors in Britain, and the Middle East too,' says Mr Satya Narayanan, chairman of New Delhi-based Career Launcher.
Those in the business say it's only a question of time before Indians offer online tutoring to any English-speaking country where there is a need, and not just in maths but in science too.
The business model varies. Career Launcher sub-contracts work from a big educational service provider in the US. It does not deal directly with schools. Educomp Datamatics prefers a direct approach because it wants to establish its own brand name with American customers.
Its maths teachers - trained to use American textbooks and teaching methods - give tuition to students at Franklin School, Santa Barbara, California.
'We have had no problem convincing American schools about the value of Indian teachers. That's not the challenge. The core challenge is convincing them that online teaching is the way to learn,' says Mr Prakash.
Mr Narayanan agrees: 'Students want help and don't care where it comes from. They think it's quite funky to be sitting in California, being taught by a maths teacher in India.'
Cost is not the only reason for Americans to outsource maths tuition. Quality is another issue.
'The US providers rely heavily on freelance tutors and the quality is patchy. Indian teachers are excellent and we have millions of them,' says Mr Kiran Karnik, president of Nasscom, India's top IT body.
But helping students solve maths problems is the easy part for an Indian maths teacher. As one tutor, who did not wish to be named, said: 'For any Indian who's gone through the rigorous maths courses at Indian schools, teaching these American kids is easy.'
TEACHING tutors how to handle American students is trickier. Cultural differences can intrude. Indian teachers are accustomed to being treated with deference. American students are more informal so tutors have to downgrade themselves mentally to mere mortals.
Language can also be an issue.
A tutor who kept telling one student, 'I think you've got a problem', irritated the student who interpreted it to mean that the tutor thought he had an attitude problem.
Image is not a problem. Indians who migrated to the US are conspicuous by their success and prosperity.
Many have reached the top in business, academia and medicine. When Americans go to hospital, for example, they are used to seeing an Indian doctor.
'The image Americans have of Indians is that they are smart, brainy people, and so they think the educational system must be good if it produces so many smart people. So no one has a problem accepting Indian tutors,' says Mr Prakash.
Nasscom sees a great future for tuition outsourcing. 'In a year or two, we will have call centre formats where teachers will be sitting in cubicles and teaching to a virtual international classroom,' says Mr Karnik.
Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer based in India.