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Sep 7, 2008

Wyoming Teachers Tutor Koreans

By RUFFIN PREVOST - Billings Gazette

CODY -- In South Korea's booming economy, the latest secret weapon in gaining a competitive business advantage is a kindergarten teacher living on a ranch 33 miles south of Ten Sleep.

Along with five other teachers in the town of roughly 300, Kathleen Hampton has been participating in a pilot program for a start-up business that lets students in South Korea learn English over the Internet.

"I know it sounds silly, but it really is fun," said Hampton of her work with students looking to improve their English language pronunciation.

Kent Holiday, founder of Eleutian, said he is pleased with the success of the pilot program, and plans to launch a commercial version of the service March 1.

"Our biggest difficulty now is finding enough teachers and getting them trained," said Holiday, whose distance learning company will match students in South Korea with teachers more than 5,800 miles away in Wyoming.

Eleutian will work with Northwest College to recruit and train teachers in Powell, and will work with teachers across the state as more students sign up.

Teachers and students communicate on a video chat system over a high-speed fiber optic data line.

"Most of the students I've had are pretty good with grammar," Hampton said. "It is the pronunciation they have to work on.

"The letter R is hard for them to pronounce, for instance," she said. "You can read it in a book or listen on a tape, but it doesn't mean you can replicate the sound yourself.

"That's where having a live person to talk to and explain where to put your tongue is so beneficial," she said.

Holiday said students in South Korea must learn English in order to land high-paying business jobs.

"If a kid can't speak English, he won't advance," said Holiday, who lived in South Korea for 10 years while working for Korean Telecom.

But schools there focus on reading, writing and grammar much more than speaking, Holiday said. So private speech tutoring is big business, amounting to more than $15 billion a year spent on English training.

Holiday said the chronic shortage of native English speakers in South Korea gave him the idea for the business, so he returned to the United States with a plan to launch Eleutian.

His original strategy was to locate near a college campus in Utah, but Holiday said his wife returned from Korea to visit her parents in Ten Sleep, where she saw workers from TCT West installing fiber optic lines.

"The reason we finally decided to start here was because of TCT and the network they had. We couldn't do it without that," Holiday said.

Fiber optic connections are ubiquitous in South Korea, which is one of the most wired countries in the world. But Holiday said towns such as Ten Sleep, where fiber is available to every home, are almost unheard of in the United States.

Chris Davidson, general manager for TCTWest, said the company had worked closely with Eleutian to ensure that the technical aspects of the venture would work.

With the Big Horn Basin lacking many large telecommunications customers, Davidson said TCTWest works hard to help local companies grow into large clients.

With many communities in the region served by a fiber optic line, Davidson said it was possible for other similar ventures to locate here.

Holiday said teachers in Ten Sleep will eventually be able to work from their homes.

"That would be fine with me," said Sarah Anderson, an elementary school teacher in Ten Sleep who has been working from a call center there.

Anderson said she likes the flexible hours, with teachers able to sign up for as many lessons as their schedules allow.

Starting in March, Eleutian will pay teachers $15 an hour. Anderson and Hampton said they got involved.