Amanda spikes, aged 27, sits in her tiny bedroom in Brooklyn, New York, talking through her headset to eight-year-old Joey in Hebei province, northern China. On the wall behind her are felt hangings that read “Team Amanda” and “vipkid”, the company for which she works. On the screen are images of her, Joey and some teaching materials.
“Happy New Year, Joey!” says Ms Spikes, enunciating very clearly. Then she sings him a little song: “I like food, I like fruit, fruit tastes good in the morning,” and claps when Joey repeats it. This lesson is going better than the last one, when Joey messed up the technology by licking the iPad screen.
vipkid is the biggest of a number of companies using technology to provide teachers in the West for Asian children who want to learn English. Stephenie Lee, a senior product lead, describes the company as “the Uber of education…We provide the limos and the trained chauffeurs.” Its 60,000 teachers are mostly people with classroom experience who prefer the freelance life. Amanda has 10-12 regular customers and teaches five or six 25-minute lessons a day, for which she gets paid $10.50 a time.
Since it was founded in 2013, vipkid has won half a million customers. It provides 180,000 lessons a day. At 140 yuan ($21) each (less for bulk purchases), these add up to revenues of over $1bn, which cover, aside from the teachers’ salaries, the costs of the platform and customer acquisition, although Ms Lee says they get most of their clients through word of mouth. vipkid provides a curriculum and materials to help teachers “make the best of that little rectangle”, she explains. That includes digital costumes in which teachers dress up to amuse their pupils.
Online tutoring works better than older people might expect. Nine-year-old Zhang Yutong in Tianjin wasn’t making much progress in her 30-strong class at school; now, says her mother, “I feel she is truly happy when she talks to vipkid’s tutors. She is quite willing to express herself.” Yutong’s teacher, Jessica, asks her to propose an alternative ending to the gentle tale of Miss Snowball’s cat. “The cat could die,” says Yutong cheerfully, making them both laugh.
Ms Spikes says she has a better connection with her online pupils than she did when teaching an actual classroom-full of them in South Korea: “I feel really invested in these little kids.” Her youngest pupil, astonishingly, is three. “Getting her to make the right sounds is a really big thing,” she says. But she admits that the parents face a bigger challenge, just getting the child to sit still.
For her, the flexibility the job offers is crucial. “I love to travel. I’ve done it from Korea, Mexico, Spain, Canada. I couldn’t do the travel without the job.” She says the company also attracts disabled or retired people who would not be able or willing to go into a classroom—but who, thanks to technology, have joined a new class of American exporters to China.