Online tutoring works better than some might expect

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,...

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