When Online Tutors View Child Abuse

This from Emily Tate on EdSurge:

THE DAY STARTED OUT LIKE MOST. Around 6 o’clock on a fall morning in 2018, Jordan sat down at her desk, donned her headset, and logged in to her account with VIPKid, a Beijing-based company that connects native English-speaking teachers like her with children in China for live, online video lessons.

Then the marathon began. In 25-minute spurts, Jordan greeted a series of kids between the ages of 4 and 12 with an enthusiastic “hello” and taught them an English lesson. By the afternoon, she had completed about half a dozen one-on-one classes and was nearly finished for the day. One of her last sessions was with a student she’d worked with just once before.

Almost immediately, something felt off. The student, a 4-year-old boy, joined from a dimly lit room. Although he was barely visible, Jordan could make out a red mark over one of his eyebrows. His mother was close by, whispering the correct answers to Jordan’s questions and shouting at him each time he made a mistake. “She just kept getting more and more animated,” Jordan recalls.

Eventually, Jordan became so nervous about the mother’s behavior that she contacted VIPKid’s 24-hour support team, known as the Firemen. A Fireman quickly joined the class and, in a chat box, told Jordan he was looking into the issue. He checked in with her once more a few seconds later, but ultimately provided no further instructions about how to proceed.

Jordan resumed the lesson, fearing that if she didn’t stick around for the full 25 minutes, VIPKid would dock her pay. Soon enough, the mother started up again. This time Jordan noticed that the boy kept recoiling, as if bracing for a hand to come down on him. And then it did. As Jordan led him through the alphabet song, the mother cut in and struck her son in view of the camera. Frustrated, Jordan paused to address the mother. “Mom, I’ve got it,” she said. “I can teach him, Mom.”

The session ended a few moments later, and Jordan quickly logged out. Then, concerned for the boy’s safety, she logged back in. His camera was still recording, and Jordan saw that the mother was using a blue plastic clothes hanger to hit him repeatedly. “It was a nightmare,” she says of the beating, which continued in plain view of the camera for several minutes. “The blood-curdling sobbing, the screaming. I have him in my ears. It was bad. … Honestly, it was traumatic.”

At the time, Jordan was a relative newcomer to online tutoring. After years working as a classroom teacher in the US, she’d recently moved to central Europe. VIPKid, she says, allowed her to continue doing what she loved—what she felt she was best at—without stopping her from immersing herself in a new culture.

But the experience with the boy left her shaken and confused. As far as she knew, VIPKid had no systems in place to address what she had witnessed. Throughout the onboarding process, and in all the company materials she’d read since, she had never come across any specific guidance. “There’s no handbook,” she explains. “Nothing like that.”

After she logged out of the session a second time, Jordan reported the incident to VIPKid. Then she drafted a post in a private Facebook group for VIPKid teachers. “Anyone ever have an issue with witnessing child abuse?” she asked. She explained what had unfolded during her class. “I already wrote a ticket complete with screen shots of the abuse, but is there anything else I can do here? I am so broken up over this.”

Jordan soon discovered that hers was not an isolated case. Some of her colleagues, both at VIPKid and on other online tutoring platforms, were struggling with the same question. In the Facebook group she posted in, and others like it, new reports of parental abuse surface nearly every week.

Of the two dozen online educators I spoke to for this story, about a third said they had never seen a single instance of abuse, even after teaching as many as 1,500 classes. The rest, however, had stories just as harrowing as Jordan’s. (Some asked that I withhold their last names to protect their job security.)

Here is VIPKid’s response:

Adam Steinberg, a spokesman at VIPKid’s US office in San Francisco, said in a written statement that “the safety and security of teachers, students, and parents is a top priority for VIPKid and we take these matters very seriously.” Although he declined to say precisely how many reports of abuse the company receives each day, he wrote that “we have a process to address these very rare instances directly with the parties involved to ensure their welfare.”

That process, Steinberg said, includes ending classes before the full 25 minutes, deleting the video, and following up with both teachers and parents about the issue. Late last year, about a month after the incident Jordan witnessed, the company also introduced a “critical safety concern” button, which makes it easier for teachers to alert the Firemen if they think a child is in danger. VIPKid declined repeated requests for further interviews on this topic, and would not say what its procedure is for referring reports of abuse to local authorities.

Many states have laws which require notification to state authorities when a teacher suspects abuse.  In Massachusetts it’s called a 51a.

I wonder how the Massachusetts authorities would respond if a local teacher called to report abuse he or she had observed online, in another country.  My guess is they’d say “Out of my jurisdiction.”

Now think of the VIPKid CEO.  She perhaps thinks: “These parents are almost certainly abusive outside of the VIPKid context…it’s not our fault of course.  The tutoring isn’t causing the abuse.  If we report them they will just leave our service and be angrier at the kid.”

Both of which are probably true.

As best I understand it, VIPKid is losing lots of money as they gain customers, with a high degree of customer churn.  This can be normal in the blitzscale world of companies, as Reid Hoffman calls them.  But when the quest is to “lose less cash” I would guess that “new investments for safety” sounds scary.   Still, they are probably worth making.  It doesn’t even have to be “because you think it’s the right thing, given that our tutoring is not causing this in any way, and intervention has some risk of worsening things, and we don’t have cultural competency, etc.”

I would point to other VC-backed companies, like Uber, that made similar claims in the early years, but eventually made large investments in safety, even as they lost money.  They did it because of p.r. and lawsuits.  “A cost of doing business.”

What might these safety investments look like?  Hmm.  Three components come to mind.  Obviously be willing to lose that customer’s business by engaging with the parent somehow.  Perhaps some type of proactive engagement with Chinese authorities, seeking regulation, although this could just drive the abuse off-camera and underground and worsen things.  Third, hire skilled people to at least attempt a parent interaction.

Example could be something like this, where The Firemen say:

“Mom, you seem really stressed out.  Four-year-olds can be quite a handful! Our company offers free online counseling for Chinese moms.  You choose from some traditional counselors based in Shanghai or Beijing, or even a Harvard-University-trained counselor based in our San Francisco headquarters.”

Based on the example from the EdSurge article, I would also suggest some culturally appropriate parent training that mentions “Wait Time” – how it’s good to let the kid sit there for awhile, no need to prompt, the brain is developing even though the parent instinctively thinks valuable seconds are being wasted.  This sort of reminder could happen before sessions begin – even a quickie 1-minute video (like the airlines do before takeoff) to hit some key points – Wait Time, Praise Your Kid For Effort But Not Getting Right Answer, Don’t Hit.  Invest in making the videos entertaining and changing them up, perhaps even incorporating some English puzzles in there for parent-and-kid together.

Finally, here’s an idea – does VIPKid already offer parent/kid lessons (taken together)?  One could imagine how the lessons would differ pedagogically, in a way that could be fun for everyone.