Mon, Sep 11, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Amid education boom, China’s tiger moms try virtual US tutors

Funding and interest is pouring into the virtual tutoring industry, which has found a foothold China, where tutoring is set to reach 50 percent of grade-schoolers within five years

Bloomberg News

“We are the first to have a 24/7 proprietary network for teaching online,” chief financial officer Paul Keung said. “We also don’t limit you to teachers in the US. We let you connect with great native speakers all over the world.”

To stay ahead of rivals, VIPKid has set up a research institute tasked with making online teaching more effective.

Leading the effort are Silicon Valley venture capitalist Rob Hutter and Stanford Graduate School of Education professor Bruce McCandliss.

“Great technology companies are products of evolutions, paradigms, tipping points,” Hutter said. “VIP is no different. We’re at a moment where we can replicate the benefits of live [classes], but in addition, we can actually make it better.”

With about 2 million classes offered each month, VIPKid offers researchers a vast trove of data to analyze.

In the past, studies of education techniques were limited to dozens or scores of pupils, but “now you have hundreds of thousands of students working with thousands of teachers,” McCandliss said.

This makes it possible to hone in on specific details — syntax, vocabulary, accent — and fine-tune lessons for individual students, he said, adding that eventually, the immense data-crunching power of artificial intelligence could be unleashed on Web learning.

That future is probably years off. In the meantime, start-ups like VIPKid have to prove they are more than a passing fad.

Already, some Chinese parents are souring on the experience.

Jean Liu tried several online schools and then moved her eight-year-old daughter back to the classroom.

The Beijing mother said that services tend to deploy their best teachers in ads and introductory courses, but once you sign up, the “good teachers aren’t usually available,” she said.

Liu also thinks it is difficult for youngsters to sit in front of a computer for a whole hour.

“You can’t really make it too difficult, especially for young kids,” she said. “Offline, you can do much more. Kids can break up into groups and act out the stories they just heard, for example.”

While many parents like VIPKid’s one-to-one teacher-student ratio, as the start-up signs up more kids, it faces a challenge in lining up enough instructors to teach them.

Chen, the UBS analyst, questioned whether the business model can ever be as robust as one teacher leading a group of paying students.

“It’s difficult to scale up because one teacher can only teach one student at a certain period of time,” Chen said.

Mi is undaunted. She said there are millions of qualified US teachers who have left the profession or are looking for extra work, so shortages are not a concern.

Her company just raised US$200 million, allowing her to step up investments in marketing, engineers and research.

Perched on a couch at her overcrowded office in a former Taoist temple, she ticked through all the new features and products the company is introducing: a teacher recommendation service much like the one Amazon uses to suggest movies, a star system so parents can rate teachers and data analysis that tells parents how their kids are progressing.

Mi expects to sign up 1 million students by 2019 and said that 10 million is probably not that far off.

“Our vision is to be the best K-12 education globally,” she said. “Over the long term, this can go beyond anything we can imagine.”

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