Online Tutoring Companies Take Small Steps to Protect Student Safety

Dec 10, 2019

Some online tutoring companies have recently made changes to their platforms to better protect and promote students’ safety, especially as it pertains to online privacy, behavioral issues and parental discipline.

The changes come several months after EdSurge reported that many Americans who teach online English-language lessons to children in China have witnessed parents physically reprimand their children on screen during class—sometimes to a degree that experts say goes beyond discipline and crosses into child abuse.

And they come as the Chinese government is seeking to regulate online education. In July, the Ministry of Education issued new guidelines for after-school online teaching programs—set to be enforced in 2020—specifying that all live lessons must be completed by 9 p.m. Beijing Time, in an effort to reduce academic pressure on students. The rules also stipulate that foreigners who teach through an online program must be certified to teach English as a second language and hold bachelor’s degrees.

Online tutoring companies—especially those that connect kids in China with native English-speaking teachers for live video lessons—began gaining momentum about five years ago, when Chinese platforms like VIPKid, Qkids and Dada emerged to serve families hoping to teach English to their young children.

Dozens of companies have since formed to offer a similar arrangement, fueled by well over a billion dollars in investment. In China, the online tutoring industry is expected to be worth more than $11 billion by 2022, according to Yiou Intelligence, a Chinese market research firm.

The companies are as popular among American teachers as they are with families in China, thanks to their flexible hours and steady income (up to $30 per hour).

But for all the job’s perks, some teachers have stumbled into situations that they neither expected nor prepared for: children being hit, beaten, slapped and otherwise abused by their parents right in front of them, in real-time—but from thousands of miles away and a screen apart.

Though the issue itself persists, at least two companies—Qkids and VIPKid—have taken steps to better address issues concerning child safety with teachers and parents. The former has added a new tool to assist teachers in reporting inappropriate or unsafe activity during lessons, and VIPKid has recently launched a video series for parents that, among other things, educates them on different disciplinary methods to use with their children.

Qkids, founded in 2015, emailed its 15,000 North American teachers in June to tell them that reporting instances of child abuse is “strictly required,” as EdSurge has previously reported. The company, at the time, put the impetus on teachers to contact their designated Qkids coach about any unsafe behavior during lessons. Their only guidance was to start the message with the word “Urgent.”

In late October, however, Qkids added a “Report Urgent Issues” feature to its platform that allows teachers to alert the company immediately when serious issues concerning student safety arise during a lesson. Teachers can select whether the issue relates to inappropriate dress, such as onscreen nudity, or the safety of a child. They can also select a general “other” option and elaborate.

Screenshot of the options for reporting urgent issues during a Qkids lesson.

Qkids did not respond to EdSurge’s repeated requests for comments about who responds to reports of urgent issues and what steps are taken to remedy them. However, teachers who contract with the company shed some light on the process. They say that once an urgent issue has been reported, someone from Qkids’ support team enters the virtual lesson and observes the issue in question, then decides whether to follow up with the family or the teacher.

Heather Gray, who has been teaching for Qkids for two years, says that though she has not needed to use the reporting feature since it was introduced on Oct. 30, she has needed a resource like it on many other occasions with the company.

“The urgent button provides fast response to sometimes disturbing events or innocent things that are not appropriate,” she explained in an email to EdSurge. “I had one child get completely naked with the laptop in the bathroom, use the bathroom, and clean himself (while still nude) all on camera, front and center. That is something I wish I had had the urgent button for.”

Gray continued: “At times, you see physical violence. You have to be culturally aware that many Chinese parents consider a smack on the head appropriate. But if it is serious, and you must have a good sense about this, you need an urgent button for that. Beating up a child repeatedly is not OK or appropriate for the other children to see.”

Another Qkids teacher, Jeremy, who asked that his last name be withheld, says he has already had to use the new button, but he didn’t find it to be especially helpful. During a recent lesson, one of his students was “stark naked” on screen, as was an older adult male in the background. Jeremy clicked the urgent issue button, marked it as “inappropriate dress,” and received a response from the support staff saying that they would reach out to the child’s parents about it later. But he’s skeptical about how effectively this feature can help curb abuse and mistreatment.

Other Qkids teachers, posting in a private Facebook group in the days after the tool was added, noted that they were not sure when or how to use the button. The company did not provide teachers with specific guidance on the types of situations that amount to “urgent issues” in its communications about the new tool. Instead, a notice sent to Qkids teachers says, “We trust that teachers will use their best discretion in utilizing this emergency function.”

Qkids’ new button is not unlike a feature that VIPKid rolled out in November 2018. Called the “Critical Safety Concern” button, it allows teachers to report situations where a child might be in danger, thereby alerting the company’s 24-hour technical support team, called “Firemen.”

Screenshot from VIPKid's teacher portal showing how to use the Critical Safety Concern button.

With 100,000 North American teachers providing 180,000 daily English-language lessons to 700,000 students in China, VIPKid is perhaps the largest of the online tutoring companies and has seen its fair share of incidents of harsh discipline and abuse as well.

At the end of the summer, VIPKid began releasing a series of safety and educational videos for parents who use its platform, a company spokesperson tells EdSurge. So far, three have been published and shared. The videos provide information and raise awareness about topics including disciplinary methods and child behavioral issues, the spokesperson says. They also seek to help parents establish boundaries and good practices for online safety and privacy.

The video series is in line with one of several remedies psychologist Robert Geffner has recommended to online tutoring companies. Geffner, the founding president of an international nonprofit called the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, previously told EdSurge that educating parents about different disciplinary approaches can be effective for deterring the use of physical punishment.

An even more proactive step, Geffner suggested, would be for companies to introduce policies that explicitly prohibit violence and child abuse, and promise to end the lesson and remove families from the platform should they violate those policies.


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