Eleutian - The Bridge to Globalization


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Sep 9, 2008

Wyoming Call Center Caters to S. Koreans

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 startup 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 is planning 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 be working 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 U.S. 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 like Ten Sleep, where fiber is available to every home, are almost unheard of in the U.S.

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

With the Bighorn Basin lacking many large telecommunications customers, Davidson said TCT West 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 to help bring the company to Ten Sleep, and because the work was interesting and rewarding.

"You form a pretty strong bond with some of the students, and we're kind of friends now," said Anderson, who has been teaching for four months. "We get pretty protective of our students."

"I haven't worked as much," said Hampton, "but even after two or three weeks, you know their family and ask about their pets. It's more than just a straightforward teaching job. You get to know them pretty well."

Holiday said the time difference, with South Korea 15 or 16 hours ahead of Wyoming, means teachers here can work early in the morning with students who are studying after dinner, or teach in the evenings to students on lunch breaks.

If Powell develops a similar fiber optic network, teachers there could also work from home, Holiday said.

But for now, most will work from a fiber-wired call center, where supervisors can offer a quiet, consistent environment and monitor teachers' work.

Target Powell Valley, a nonprofit development group affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce, is helping Eleutian set up the call center to house a dozen teachers by March, and Holiday said he hopes to employ up to 250 teachers from across the state by December.

Holiday said he sees distance learning as just one of many new uses for high-speed data networks, and that the Bighorn Basin could be positioned to take advantage of a host of opportunities.

"Why couldn't students in Ten Sleep, for instance, study advanced placement math with a teacher and other students in Cody?" he said. "If there's any place that needs distance learning, it's Wyoming.

"But you have to have the network to be able to do it," Holiday said. "It's like the railroads in the 1800s. A lot of cities didn't recognize the need. And today, if you're not on the railroad, what are you?"