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Speak Shop links tutors, students around globe

The Miami Herald, March 09, 2009
By Jill Replogle

Twice a week Margo Griffin, who lives in Denver, Colo., has a one-on-one Spanish class with her tutor, Mayra Juárez, who lives in Antigua. Both attend the class from the comfort of their own homes via Internet, webcam and an innovative business called Speak Shop.

Offering quality tutoring to students around the globe, the small U.S.firm employs struggling teachers in Guatemala.

’’I love the fact that our money is going to support that kind of program,’’ Griffin said.

Griffin schedules her classes on Speak Shop’s Web page, pays online and ’’meets’’ Juárez at the specified class time, either using Skype or Speak Shop’s own Web-based software.

They two women talk through headsets and review exercises Juárez has sent by e-mail.

They also use ’’chat’’ to work on spelling and use Speak Shop’s online translator to look up new words.

’’I think this is the ultimate program,’’ said Griffin, who tried Speak Shop when she grew tired of driving to group Spanish classes after work and never learning as much as she had hoped.

’’For less money, I can be in the comfort of my own home with a cup of coffee or whatever, enjoying the class,’’ she said.

SEASONAL WORK

The picturesque town of Antigua is home to dozens of Spanish schools where tutors like Juárez offer cheap, private lessons to foreign students of all ages from the United States, Europe and more recently from countries like Japan and Korea.

In the summer, the schools have enough students to employ hundreds of Spanish tutors. But in the off-season, many have no work.

Several companies have sprung up in recent years offering language classes – from Spanish to Potawatomi, spoken by the Native American tribe of the same name – via video conferencing. Since there are dozens of schools that operate in Guatemala, there is plenty of work for local tutors.

Online education, like that offered by Speak Shop, could solve some of the problems of traditional classrooms, said Michael Horn, executive education director of the nonprofit think tank Innosight Institute, which strives to use technology to solve social problems.

’’There are some really neat ways to customize your learning online that you can’t do in the traditional way,’’ he said.

Online learning programs also offer flexibility of time and place not possible in a normal classroom setting, Horn added.

Horn said he thought programs like Speak Shop were likely to expand to in the future. ’’There are a lot of people who want to crack this space,’’ he said.

However, economic conditions in many Spanish speaking countries prohibit teachers from buying the computers that could provide them with steady work. ’’It makes it difficult for tutors to earn a consistent living,’’ said Clay Cooper, who founded Speak Shop in 2004 with his wife, Cindy.

Cooper saw this firsthand while taking Spanish classes in Antigua in 1998. He visited the home of his tutor and was shocked to discover that the university-educated man lived in poverty. ’’I felt that the only thing preventing him from earning more money was just not enough [year-round] demand for his services,’’ Cooper said.

He thought the Internet could be a way to help connect tutors and students even in the months when most students had to be at home attending classes and most professionals had to be working. Six years later Speak Shop was born.

Speak Shop currently employs 11 tutors – nine in Guatemala and two in Nicaragua. Before they begin teaching for Speak Shop, the tutors learn how to use webcams and videoconference. They also learn to solve basic technical problems.

CONFIDENCE GROWS

’’At first it was difficult,’’ said Juárez, who didn’t have much experience with computers before she started working with Speak Shop. “But I began to lose my fear as I realized it wasn’t as complicated as I first thought it was.’‘

Now she has mastered talking with her far-away student through her headset, simultaneously typing clarifications into a chat box and clicking to another folder to look for the day’s homework.

Tutors set their own price for their work, which now varies between $7 and $10 per hour. Speak Shop takes none of these earnings. However, tutors who use the local Spanish school’s facilities to give online classes pay a small fee for the space.

Four of the tutors in Guatemala now work from home using their own equipment.

’’The fact that they can have a computer and Internet at home is really concrete evidence of the economic change,’’ Cindy Cooper said. Tutors use Speak Shop’s software and online scheduling system for free, while the company makes money from a monthly membership fee charged directly to students—from $9.99 to $39.99 depending on how many classes the students take. Still, lessons turn out to be cheaper than most language classes available in the United States.

Although still small, Speak Shop is growing rapidly. A total of 6,000 hours of lessons were offered in 2008 compared to just 3,700 the year before.

JOB-SPECIFIC CLASSES

Speak Shop also offers specialized programs for various professional fields and is accredited by the California Board of Registered Nursing to offer continuing education credits for nurses wanting to learn Spanish. No nurses have yet tried out the program.

Speak Shop has won recognition for focus on social responsibility. In 2005, the program won a prize for the ’’Best Social Return on Investment’’ from the SET Inventors Challenge: Social and Environmental Technology for the Developing World, a business plan competition for companies that generate social or environmental benefits in developing countries. It also was a finalist in PBS’s Project Enterprise Contest in 2007. The contest recognizes creative, social entrepreneurship around the globe.

The Coopers admit that trying to run a socially responsible business has been challenging.

’’We could do this the easy way and just bring on tutors who are in the United States, or in developed countries who speak English, have access to the Internet and so forth,’’ said Cindy Cooper. “But we’re doing it the way that will have the most social impact.’‘

Juárez now works from home, has a job year-round and makes about twice as much money per hour as she does at the Spanish school in Antigua where she still teaches during tourist season. She said Speak Shop has been a lifesaver at a time when tighter travel budgets and the country’s high crime rate are keeping visitors away.

Her student, Griffin, said she’s sold on the price, flexibility and individually tailored lessons, plus the chance to learn about another culture and have a personal relationship with her tutor. ’’While you’re expanding your vocabulary, you’re also creating an incredible bond with someone in Guatemala,’’ Griffin said.