Technology

Behind the Story: When Online Tutors Witness Child Abuse

Online tutoring is big business—especially for a growing number of companies that connect native English-speaking teachers with children in China for live video lessons. These services can work really well as second jobs for teachers in the U.S., who may wake up early and get in a couple of hours of tutoring before going in to their traditional classrooms. Others make it their main source of income, and say it gives them freedom and flexibility.

But for all the positives, some teachers say they’ve wound up facing unexpected encounters as they connect via live video into the homes of students far away. Some of these tutors say they’ve witnessed parents engage in harsh physical discipline on screen that some describe as abusive. So what do you do when you’ve seen something like this? And what should the companies who run these tutoring services do?

EdSurge reporter Emily Tate has spent the past several months investigating these questions, and we published her story this week in collaboration with WIRED magazine. For an episode of our podcast, we sat down this week to talk about what she found out.

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.

How did you first hear about this story?

I first heard about this story about six months ago from a teacher who tutors students online, and she said that she had recently seen something disturbing happen during a lesson. So she is sitting in her home office, teaching a child in China from thousands of miles away through a computer, and she sees the mother of a little boy come on screen and start beating him. And she had no idea what to do. She was completely thrown off that this was happening. She found it traumatizing, but also didn’t know, since she was in the US and they were in China, she didn’t know what the laws were, she didn’t know what her responsibility was, and she didn’t know what the company could or would do about it.

Let’s back up a minute and talk about this online tutoring, because it turns out this is actually a big phenomenon, these tutors working with kids in China.

It is a big phenomenon. In the last four or five years, this industry, particularly connecting native English speaking teachers with children in China, has exploded. There are now dozens of companies that do this, and they are raking in lots of venture capital. They are contracting with over 100,000 US teachers, teaching over half a million students in China, and operating some 200,000 lessons a day.

Tell us a little bit more about how this works for the teachers that use it, typically.

So it’s actually a really great setup for the American teachers because they get paid pretty well—usually between $15 and $25 an hour. The curriculum that they teach is pre-made, and they can work at their leisure. They can choose their own schedule, and they can work from their own homes or anywhere in the world. So it really is a nice setup for them.

And what happens is, if I’m a teacher on one of these platforms, I’ll be sitting at my desk in my home, and I will log on to the platform and have usually a half-hour lesson with a child in China. The kids are usually between the ages of 4 and 12, and you’re teaching them English, so you’re focusing on grammar and pronunciation, depending on the age level. It’s happening in real time, and it’s all online, almost like a Skype lesson.

It sounds like in your reporting you ended up spending a lot of time with a particular tutor. What was her situation?

Yeah, so you’re talking about Jordan. Jordan is a classroom teacher; she teaches in New York . But when she joined one of these companies, VIPKid, which is actually the largest of the online English-tutoring companies, she joined last summer because she was living in Central Europe, and she wanted to be able to keep teaching, but do it from a place where she could explore a different part of the world. So Jordan was teaching between 12 and 18 classes a day, starting from early in the morning until early in the afternoon, and then would go off and spend the rest of the day touring a city.

But a few months into this job, toward the end of the day, Jordan was teaching a lesson with a student that she had worked with just once before. And right off the bat, it felt strange to her. The lighting was pretty dim in the child’s room, and it was a four-year-old boy. And his mother was sitting near him, and the whole lesson, she felt like the mother was intimidating him. She would interrupt the lesson, speak over Jordan, speak over the boy, trying to give him the correct answers.

And at some point, Jordan became so nervous that she called in the company’s 24-hour support team—they’re called Firemen—and someone entered the class and asked her if everything was okay. And Jordan told him that she was uncomfortable, but the support personnel didn’t provide any other guidance, and she had to keep teaching the class. She worried she’d have to reach the 25-minute mark in order to get her full pay.

So at this point, she just wanted the lesson to end. So she starts singing the ABC song with this child, and as they’re working through the alphabet, the mother keeps interjecting, giving her son the correct letters. And Jordan says, “Mom, I’ve got it. I can teach him, mom.”

And so they continued the song, and the mother was still there, still kind of shouting. And Jordan noticed that the boy kept recoiling, like he had been hit before. And then the mother hit him right in view of the camera, and Jordan jumped in and said, “No, stop. He’s fine.”

And then a few moments later, the 25 minutes were up, and Jordan quickly logged out. She was sitting at her desk for a few seconds and realized that she was worried about what was happening to this boy on the other side of the screen. So she logged back into the lesson, and his camera was actually still recording. And Jordan saw that the mother was using a blue plastic clothes hanger to hit her son repeatedly right on screen. So though the room was dark, she could still make out what was happening and she could definitely hear him. She said it was “blood-curdling sobbing,” and that with her noise-canceling headphones in her ears, it was particularly traumatic for her.

So at this point, she logs out of the lesson for good, and she has to decide what to do.

Do you have any sense of how often this kind of thing happens?

It’s really hard to say, because I have reached out to the companies and I’ve talked with them, and they won’t tell me how often they receive reports of this type of abuse. But these teachers are active in private Facebook groups, and they talk about this issue a lot. I would say I see a new post about it about every week. And then when someone posts, many teachers comment—I would say dozens of teachers comment—on most of these Facebook posts saying, “Yes, it’s happened to me. This is what I did.”

And what have the companies done, VIPKid and the many others you mentioned, in response to questions and concerns by teachers like Jordan that have seen something like this?

I don’t think these companies were expecting this as a consequence of allowing live, online video lessons between teachers and students. They started, and then they grew so quickly that I think it’s kind of gotten away from them.

So I spoke with the founder and CEO of a nonprofit in D.C. called the Family Online Safety Institute. His name is Stephen Balkam, and his organization includes members from Amazon and Google to Facebook and VIPKid, who basically said just that:He said if you think about Facebook, for a long time they didn’t have live video feed, and that took years. And then you have these young companies that just went right into live video.

But beyond that, I think these companies do seem to have policies in place, the policies are just all reactive. So the abuse will have already taken place before a company policy really comes into play.

So for example, with VIPKid, in November of 2018, they introduced a new feature so that during a lesson a teacher can go and call the Firemen—that support team I mentioned—and say that it is a “critical safety concern.” So this is gonna alert the support team at VIPKid that a child may be in danger.

But even now, many teachers haven’t seen those policies mentioned anywhere. They were sent out in a newsletter, but they were mentioned quite far down the newsletter page. And they’re available on a support page in the “Teacher Portal,” but you would have to search that specific term, “critical safety,” or hunt through several tabs to be able to find it. So it’s not exactly the most accessible.

As for the other companies, there’s a company called Magic Ears, it actually has four students paired with one teacher during lessons. And it has issued guidance saying that if a teacher sees some inappropriate behavior happening on one of the students’ screens, the teacher needs to disable the camera and mute the sound so that the other children can’t see it.

Another company, Qkids, in June contacted all of its teachers to let them know that they were required to report any child safety concerns that they witness during class, and the company told the teachers that they wouldn’t be informed of how the situation was handled, but that it would be addressed “in a prudent manner.”

So these companies are grappling with the issue. But I talked with some psychologists who study child development and the effects of violence against children, and they say that once a child has been abused, or even once someone has witnessed abuse—so in this case the teachers—the damage is largely done. So the important thing that these companies need to be doing, according to the psychologists, is getting out in front of this issue.

And that may mean saying in a policy on the company guidelines, “You cannot use violence against your children during these classes.” And that if a teacher sees it or if they hear it or they hear you threaten it, they’re ending the lesson and you don’t get your money back.

When you reached out to these companies for your story, what was the response?

I did reach out to the companies, and unfortunately none of them made anyone at the company available for a phone or in-person interview with me. But they did answer some of my questions and send a short statement.

So in the case of VIPKid, their PR director told me that, “The safety and security of teachers, students and parents is a top priority for VIPKid, and we take these matters very seriously. We have a process to address these very rare instances directly with the parties involved to ensure their welfare.”

The other thing that seems at play is not only are these children far away—halfway around the world, and they’re in a different culture, and there’s clearly a gap between what the teachers understand about the Chinese system and the reality. It seems like you were looking around at that issue as you did you reporting?

Yeah, this is definitely an important element of the story, because a lot of these teachers, as they witnessed abuse happening on screen, they also asked themselves, “Is this a cultural difference? Am I discriminating against Chinese culture or foisting my Western values on these families by being disturbed by what I’m seeing?”

But across the board, between the anthropologists and the psychologists that I’ve spoken to, they say that’s not the case. They say that what these teachers are seeing on screen, in fact, crosses a line regardless of the country or culture or jurisdiction that they’re in.

I spoke with a Chinese-born anthropologist who studies child development and morality in China, and she said when she was growing up in the ’80s, maybe a spanking or a slap on the hand was common, but certainly not what these teachers are seeing onscreen—certainly not parents hitting their young children in the face. And she said today, especially, people in China would frown upon that sort of behavior.

But even more than that, the country has moved to make it illegal to hit your children. In 2015, China passed a law banning domestic violence. And in the law it says that staff members at kindergartens, schools, hospitals and other community institutions are actually required to report violence against children, making it somewhat similar to the mandatory reporting laws that exist in the US and in many other countries.

So what’s next? It seems like you’re seeing even some teachers petition and raise this issue to some of these companies. What do you think is happening next in this space?

There seems to be—at least in these Facebook groups—a sense that teachers want something to be done. I saw in one of the groups, it was specific to VIPKid, that one of the teachers asked if others would sign a petition asking the company to do more to address these situations of child abuse during their lessons. And I also think that, as the psychologists suggested, there are opportunities for the companies to put in place new policies that protect the teachers as well as the children that they serve.

So this has actually worked well in the US—because state to state, we have very different laws on corporal punishment, and there’s a lot of gray area. So hospitals, schools and churches have instituted something called no-hit zones, where basically, regardless of the law in that state, adults can’t hit each other, children can’t hit each other and adults can’t hit children in these spaces. So I’ve heard from several psychologists that they think that would work really well on these platforms, too.

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