This is a topic I delved into pretty deeply when I was in grad school and working toward an additional digital literacy certification. I remember the teacher bringing up a fairly humorous quote from Socrates about how the new-fangled approach of writing in the classroom was hurting the students’ ability to memorize. Kids these days! And though out history, you can see similar handwringing and worry about any change or new technology in the classroom. Personally, I’m the type of person who likes the feel of a real book in my hands and the idea of a physical teacher in the classroom. So, I was fairly skeptical of all this online learning business.
The first thing I had to get my head around was that there is actually a difference between simple “edu-tainment” (yes, a made up word…that’s how language works my friends) and digital literacy in education. That’s not to say VIPKID doesn’t prioritize a fun and, yes, an entertaining learning experience. However, there is a distinction between simply taking a plain old boring worksheet that you might have in a classroom and putting it in digital format on a screen for the student to complete, and actually utilizing digital media to change (dare I say, improve!) the way we educate. The first is basically putting busy work on a screen and hoping that the screen somehow makes the busy work more exciting for the student. The second concept is so much more than that. It is reading for knowledge, thinking critically, and actually communicating using different media platforms. It builds on traditional forms of literacy, and despite the reliance on technology, it is people-centered at heart. For a really basic overview of what digital literacy is, Wikipedia to the rescue. For a much more comprehensive understanding, check out Paul Gilster’s book Digital Literacy. It is an essential topic for any teacher, but it is especially relevant for those of us who teach online or in non-traditional forms.
So, what about VIPKID? Is it simply taking busy work and putting it on a screen to make a buck? Short answer, no. It isn’t. VIPKID has taken the digital literacy pedagogical approach to design a curriculum with multiple parts, allowing the student to develop their language skills using multiple platforms. Even though the native English speaking teacher is half a world away, student-teacher communicative interaction is still there. Technology isn’t replacing the teacher, it is instead providing a medium for the student and teacher to interact and engage. VIPKID also uses concepts of the “flipped classroom” (more on that later!) to maximize the opportunity to learn by communicating with the teacher after the basics have been overviewed outside the class. In that sense, we can see how the technology is working in conjunction with traditional forms of education (regular old homework). Additionally, VIPKID also has Chinese Learning Partners, Chinese teachers who are able to interact with the students and parents.
Basically, VIPKID is taking a puzzle-piece approach, with each piece complementing and supporting the other to help the child develop their English communication skills. Pretty cool, actually. And not so robots-taking-over-the-world, when you really examine it. Humans, and our desire to have meaningful interactions with each other, is still at the core. So, when you wake up at 3 AM, all bleary eyed and exhausted, and open up your laptop to see the happy (hopefully!) face of a cute little person on the other side of the planet, you can feel pretty good about your contribution to the puzzle, knowing that they are expanding their own ability to communicate, engage, and participate in the world around them though the gift of a second language.