Online English Language Learning in the Time of COVID-19
May 8, 2020
Nearly every community around the world has seen the ways the current state of affairs has rapidly changed day-to-day life. With the World Health Organization (WHO) designating COVID-19 a global health pandemic, schools at all levels across the U.S. have temporarily shuttered their doors. Many have rapidly adopted distance learning practices in an effort to combat the spread of the virus. The sudden global shift to online classes has been seismic - an unanticipated sea-change in learning.
In China, 260 million children began taking their classes online after the Lunar New Year break in late January and many continue to do so, bridging geographic teaching quality and wealth disparities between students. According to the Director of College Counseling at Xi'an Tieyi High School International Curriculum Center Francis Miller, “For perhaps the first time, all students in China — rich and poor, urban and rural — have equal access to classes with the most experienced and best-trained teachers. All it took to make it happen was an epidemic.”
The company where I work, VIPKid, envisions a global classroom that empowers students and teachers through personalized learning for supplementary English and math courses. The platform currently connects more than 700,000 students with 100,000 teachers in the United States and Canada for real-time online education, connecting cultures across the world and igniting a passion for lifelong learning. VIPKid Founder and CEO, Cindy Mi, a high school dropout herself, had dreams of building a global classroom with global teachers. Those dreams have been realized through VIPKid, which facilitates learning and cultural connections at a historically unprecedented scale.
The ripple effects of the COVID-19 outbreak have yet to fully surface; however, the move to temporary online classes has the potential to create a greater acceptance of and appreciation for online learning. With students and teachers spending more time in virtual classroom settings, many will come to realize the power of online learning to enhance access to high-quality teachers for students regardless of where they live.
As the outbreak grew throughout China in late January, VIPKid sprang into action. The first step we took, in direct response to China’s school closures, was the donation of 1.5 million online math and English classes for children aged four to 12. While available for students throughout China, we prioritized students in the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province - the epicenter of the outbreak - as well as the children of medical workers. As part of this donation, students also received two-months of free access to VIPKid’s digital library. As schools in China remain temporarily closed, VIPKid continues to support uninterrupted learning. Sharing the company’s education technology platform with schools and teachers in China ensures students can continue to learn while outside of their traditional school setting. VIPKid also launched free live-stream and recorded classes on eight major streaming platforms in China, including Tencent, in just 47 hours from start to launch, which speaks to the company’s ability to rapidly deploy online learning resources during a time of need.
VIPKid’s 100,000 teachers are also a passionate and dedicated community, demonstrating a sense of compassion that, like the global classroom, has no boundaries. When the outbreak began to grow, many in the community asked what else they could do to help, knowing they could play an important role simply by providing care and comfort in an especially challenging and uncertain time. Countless others took the extra steps of donating face masks or making videos saying, “Stay Strong Wuhan,” and in Mandarin, “Wuhan Jiayou,” to show their support to their students and families. Humanity truly transcends borders.
For instance, Teacher Juliet from Pennsylvania noticed her students were becoming increasingly restless while spending an extended period of time in their homes. To help ease this tension, Juliet instituted an at-home scavenger hunt so her students would have an activity to do around the house that simultaneously encouraged them to practice their English vocabulary. In her post-class feedback to students she included words of encouragement about the love and support being sent their way.
Teacher Crystal, a Texas native now living in China, shared some important thoughts with our community, observing that her students are resilient and positive but also noting that “we have to give credit where credit is due. Children feed off the emotions of their parents...at the end of the day, even during an epidemic, we still have the power to make the decision that today was a good day. Shout out to the parents and to these awesome kiddos who are choosing this mindset and to all of you amazing VIPKid teachers for encouraging your families and students along the way!” In reflection of this mindset, she has shared videos of the various activities she, her students and her own kids are doing inside, including different dance and movement challenges.
Beyond the increased anxiety people are experiencing are the everyday life events being impacted, and our community continues to find ways to make these moments feel special. For example, Teacher Ashleigh’s (from B.C., Canada) student in Hubei Province wanted to celebrate her 13th birthday, but due to the lockdown was required to be at home meaning no party and her parent’s inability to get her a gift. In an effort to cheer her up, Ashleigh brought a cupcake on screen during their virtual class, and they blew out the candles together across computer screens.
As the outbreak escalated in the U.S., roles reversed and students and their families started sending care packages with toilet paper, masks and gloves, as well as messages of support to their teachers. Additionally, the company looked for ways to show broader support. In April, VIPKid donated $100K to New York and California, two states severely impacted by the virus. This monetary amount was made in honor of the 100,000 North American teachers on the VIPKid platform. Half was donated to the New York Governor’s office to be used on personal protective equipment for medical workers. The other half was directed to California to support the state’s distance learning efforts, providing equipment and connectivity for students and teachers without.
The circumstances we find ourselves in are unprecedented and they necessitate our individual and collective efforts to be flexible, resourceful and collaborative. This mindset is deeply ingrained in our DNA - since the early days of our inception it has been VIPKid’s priority to use novel approaches to give back to the local communities we serve. By shifting from learning solely offline to online, VIPKid’s technology has broken down barriers to education and created new learning opportunities for hundreds of thousands of children. This has innovated tutoring and extracurricular learning as we know it by removing location restraints, saving time, and creating a new level of access to teachers that allows for more equity in education.
Three years ago, VIPKid launched the Rural Education Project (REP), a philanthropic initiative that leverages technology and VIPKid’s teacher community to bring free, high quality English instruction to rural schools in China that would not otherwise have access. With the support of hundreds of expert VIPKid teachers, the program has reached more than 1,000 schools and 50,000 children throughout the country.
The success of REP inspired VIPKid to seed fund and incubate VIPTeach, a U.S. non-profit organization dedicated to empowering educators with technology and professional learning to drive equity and innovation in education. VIPTeach partners with VIPKid REP to empower educators to increase access to education. We are humbled that this innovative partnership partnership to expand the impact of REP was recently recognized by Fast Company with an honorable mention as a 2020 World Changing Idea in Education.
Building upon this mission, VIPTeach will be home to the Global Online Teaching Fellowship, a first-of-its-kind online service and professional development program for leaders in education working to close opportunity gaps with technology. The fellowship seeks to empower education leaders with meaningful, global teaching and learning experiences that will help them grow as professionals to better understand the power of online learning as they make a difference in the lives of students who lack access to quality education. As technology continues to play an increasingly important role in learning both inside and out of the physical classroom, we understand, now more than ever, the urgency to provide fellows with the skills and confidence to effectively leverage it to benefit all students.
As communities across the globe continue to grapple with the effects of COVID-19, we all hope for a speedy return to safer, healthier times. In the meantime, as companies and individuals, we should show each other compassion and lend a helping hand where we can. Furthermore, we can take a lesson from our VIPKid teachers and students and remember to share and learn from one another’s experiences. As more classes shift online, VIPKid is pleased to be in a position to share the unique online education resources we’ve developed, guided by our mission to inspire and empower every child for the future. But just as importantly, we’re proud to provide a platform for compassionate exchange across borders, at a time when the phrase “we’re all in it together” feels truer than ever.
Wenchi Yu is the Head of Global Public Policy at VIPKid, the world’s leading education technology platform company. She leads VIPKid’s public policy and social impact initiative, including the establishment of VIPTeach.org, a non-profit organization seed funded and incubated by VIPKid to promote equitable access to quality education through technology.