Technology and education
From The Economist print edition
How Skype, podcasts and broadband are transforming language teaching
IT IS early evening in Berkeley, California, and Chrissy Schwinn, a sinophile environmentalist, walks ten feet from her kitchen to her home office for her Chinese lesson. She has already listened to that day's dialogue, which arrived as a free podcast, on her iPod. She has also printed out the day's Chinese characters, which arrived along with the podcast. Now her computer's Skype software—which makes possible free phone calls via the internet—rings and “Vera”, sitting in Shanghai where it is late morning, says Ni hao to begin the lesson.
One might call it “language-learning 2.0,” says Ken Carroll, an Irishman who in 2005 co-founded Praxis, the company that provides Ms Schwinn's service, after hearing about these “Web 2.0” technologies from his slightly geekier co-founders, Hank Horkoff, a Canadian, and Steve Williams, a Briton. The penny dropped at once.
“Tens of millions” of people in 110 countries now download the free ChinesePod podcasts, Praxis's flagship service, says Mr Carroll. About 250,000 listen regularly and “several thousand” pay for the premium services, which include individual Skype chats with teachers. A second service, SpanishSense, is out, and more will follow.
As a businessman, Mr Carroll loves the economics behind this scheme. Having taught English in Shanghai for a decade, he always knew that the old technology of classrooms and books would never “scale” to cover the world. Now he has 35 employees, all in Shanghai, serving customers globally. He hires the city's best language teachers and pays them about $500 a month, a good wage by local standards.
The customers are everywhere from Berkeley to Alaska and the Vatican. In the past, when language instruction—along with haircuts and massages—was a “non-tradable” sector of the economy, many people would not have found a native Mandarin speaker as a teacher in their town at all. Now they need only a broadband connection.