Chinese students cut off
Beijing imposes tight new restrictions on online tutoring
On the morning of Aug. 5, Kendra Bowie was scheduled to teach two English sessions online via GoGoKid. But she found an email the virtual English teaching program had sent during the night informing teachers that all its classes were canceled and the program was ending. The 44-year-old homeschooling mother of three had taught children in China with GoGoKid since it began in 2018, as well as with VIPKid, a similar online tutoring platform. Bowie’s virtual teaching provided supplemental income, but other tutors depended more on their GoGoKid earnings.
In July, China imposed new restrictions on education technology companies such as VIPKid and GoGoKid, banning online lessons during holidays and weekends, requiring them to register as nonprofits, and prohibiting them from working with non-Chinese teachers outside the country. The changes restrict families’ educational support and abruptly cut off relationships between students and teachers.
“Education is seen as the key launchpad for one’s entire life in China,” Zak Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Young China Group, said in an email highlighting the importance of the gaokao, or the Chinese National College Entrance Exam. “If you are the best violinist in the province or captain of your basketball team thus demonstrating leadership qualities, it doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters is your test score.”
Finding English instructors in particular can be difficult in some areas of China, Dychtwald said. Bowie said one student, who reconnected with her over social media, lives in a rural area that would prevent her from receiving quality English instruction in person. “I really feel for this student,” she said. “Her parents were nearly in tears this morning telling me about it.”
VIPKid, a Beijing-based virtual English tutoring company founded in 2013, has connected native English speakers in the United States and Canada with Chinese students for virtual, one-on-one lessons. Teachers can earn a base hourly rate of up to $18, and the VIPKid website says its teachers have provided services to nearly 1 million students.
Naomi Armendáriz, 41, has taught 362 students through VIPKid since joining the program in May 2018. She said teachers use a VIPKid-provided curriculum similar to a PowerPoint presentation that is “in line with the Chinese education ministry.” Teachers go over vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and a short story tailored to the student’s level. Parents and students choose their level, courses, and teachers.
China’s control of outside voices was an issue even before the shutdown. As an incentive for her students, Armendáriz made a felt map of China and cut it into several pieces. As a child progressed, Armendáriz added pieces of felt to the map. “I got an email from someone in the office that there had been a complaint about it,” she said. “It was because I didn’t have Taiwan attached to China.” The Wall Street Journal reported many VIPKid teachers received notice of similar complaints. Armendáriz said VIPKid later provided maps for teachers. The company has terminated at least two teachers’ contracts after they shared facts about Tiananmen Square or Taiwan’s independence with students.
Armendáriz said she loves her VIPKid students. She said one has shared her encouraging messages before a school exam with his friends. “He’s like, ‘Can you believe a teacher actually cares how I’m going to do on a test?’” she said.
VIPKid informed its teachers in early August that it would schedule no new classes between Chinese students and American or Canadian teachers outside of China, though already-purchased classes could go forward. VIPKid said it is working on expanding in other markets, including in the United States.
Since the unexpected shutdown, families and teachers have turned to social media to try to reconnect. Bowie said one student found her over WeChat after the program closed down. “These are more than students to us,” Bowie texted me. “You develop a funny kind of bond over the years and it is a big loss when we don’t get to say goodbye properly.”
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