It has been more than ten years since the idea of setting up an online English school brewed in the mind of 51Talk founder and CEO Jack Huang. In his hometown Nantong, a city in East China’s Jiangsu Province, the now 35-year old visionary shares that he met some friends who were very eager to learn English but did not have easy access to an English education school. Back then, the only way one could learn how to speak the English language was by enrolling in traditional brick and mortar schools which were also very expensive.
English language education is highly valued in China as it opens up doors to higher education and better career opportunities. Even the Chinese government has started heavily promoting the study of English language in schools because of its importance in international trade and business.
“Back then, people from my town couldn’t afford English classes. Only well-off families could enroll their children in English language schools. That’s when I realized I have to do something to help my fellow Chinese people to speak to the world,” shared Mr. Huang.
Mr. Huang assessed that the traditional model had its shortcomings due to its inaccessibility to the great number of potential learners and the fact that students were only able to practice their English skills whenever they were inside the classroom. Proficient English-speaking teachers were also scarce in China, posing a problem for parents who wanted to hire cost-effective yet competent teachers who would tutor their children.
Challenged by the current landscape at that time, Huang thought of making English learning available anytime, anywhere with the use of technology. Students need not go to a physical school to learn; they could learn anytime, anywhere through a computer, with a live teacher facilitating the lesson remotely.
Learning how to communicate in English is given utmost importance in China with parents enrolling their children as early as 2-3 years old to give them an early start. Before setting up the platform, Huang and his co-founders engaged in a lot of research which included looking for the best English teachers who would be a good fit for the young learners in China. Their research led them to the Philippines, a neighboring Asian country with a high proficiency for speaking English. With their jolly attitude, patience and familiarity with both Asian and Western cultures, Huang found the perfect fit and, soon after, the 51Talk platform was launched.
Since then, Mr. Huang embarked on a journey with a mission to make English language education affordable and accessible to everyone. From that point onward, Mr. Huang, through 51Talk, started promoting Filipino teachers in China.
Setting up a fully-online English program took more than just collating English lessons and presenting them to students in a virtual classroom. As an educator, Mr. Huang knew the importance of designing modules that catered to the context, comprehension level, age and learning style of the students. 51Talk lesson modules were carefully crafted by more than 100 experts for each age and learning level. Every teacher on the platform would then have to attend a series of training sessions before they are launched as a teacher.
Challenges and Growth
51Talk made its presence in the Philippines in 2012. At that time, the concept of home-based livelihood was not considered mainstream nor was it taken seriously. Not everyone could grasp that one could legitimately work from the comfort of their own home with just an up-to-spec computer, a webcam and a reliable wired internet connection.
Another challenge was promoting Filipinos as the best English teachers to the Chinese market because at that time, the Chinese considered native English speakers like Americans as the best teachers.
“When we first started years ago, it took a while to convince the Chinese people that Filipinos are as good as or even better English teachers than native English speakers. However, it did not take a lot of convincing because the Chinese parents who enrolled their children to 51Talk realized that Filipinos are hard-working, passionate and are also effective teachers,” explained Mr. Huang.
Teacher Nelli, who has been with the platform for seven years, was previously a primary school teacher and an office-based ESL teacher. She decided to teach English from home with 51Talk after realizing the long hours she spends in the office, traffic woes, and having less time with her husband took a toll on her life. Since she started, Teacher Nelli has tutored thousands of students, including achievers who have joined oral English contests in China.
“Seeing my students become good English speakers has definitely motivated me to be the best teacher I can be for my students,” said Nelli. Through the years, she has continuously attended training sessions offered by the platform for free. These allowed her to move up in both her ranking and teaching capability.
51Talk also partnered with the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) for the Digital Jobs PH Training which was intended to create meaningful ICT-enabled jobs in socio-economically disadvantaged areas in the country. A local cluster of the DICT would allow the usage of their facilities, internet and equipment for free, while 51Talk conducted the free training sessions with the goal to launch digitally-equipped teachers from the countryside.
One such example is Teacher Ivy Rosey who is based in Zamboanga City in the southern part of the Philippines. Ivy Rosey started as a scholar of the Digital Jobs Ph Training at the DICT Zamboanga Digital Hub where she learned the basics of online freelance work, including the teaching opportunity offered by 51Talk. After graduating from the program, Ivy Rosey utilized the digital hub’s facilities to conduct her online English classes until she was able to earn enough to buy her own equipment and start teaching from home.
DICT is just one of many partners of 51Talk in supporting and developing the online ESL industry in the Philippines. Through its alliances and cooperation with the government, business communities, academe, and other stakeholders, 51Talk is well on its way to achieving its mission of empowering Filipinos by providing livelihood opportunities and by promoting them in the global stage as the best English language educators.
2020 and Beyond
A lot has changed since 51Talk’s founding 9 years ago. Today, home-based, online livelihood or “work from home” setup is considered the safest way to earn amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As such, 51Talk has been aggressively promoting the platform to spread awareness about the advantages of being an online English teacher. As part of their “Road to 100K” initiative where the platform plans to grow its teacher base to 100,000, they have recently launched a campaign to attract 30,000 to join the platform in 2020 to meet the growing demand of online English teachers in China.
According to Mr. Huang, China remains to be the biggest and fastest-growing market for English language studies and the strong demand for online English lessons for children in China will continue to grow. Before the pandemic, it was reported by Technavio that China’s English training market size was expected to grow 25% annually to reach USD 74B by 2022.
To help reach out to more Filipinos, 51Talk recently announced Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach as their new brand ambassador.
“We are very delighted to have Pia Wurtzbach join the 51Talk family as our brand ambassador. Pia is a national pride of the Filipinos through winning Miss Universe and she enjoys an international reputation that fits 51Talk’s brand image. She represents confident, beautiful and intelligent women much like our Filipino teacher community. She inspires people and has a positive image and we hope that 51Talk teachers are also inspired because of her so they can focus on self-development to succeed in life,” shared 51Talk Country Head Jennifer Que.