American-Statesman - Lori Hawkins
Austin Startup Uses Web To Teach Chinese
By Lori Hawkins - November 25, 2009
Two years ago, when investment adviser John Pesce began hearing school superintendents complain about a shortage of Mandarin Chinese teachers, he saw an opportunity.
"The visa process since 9/11 has made it so tough to bring people into the United States. At the same time, demand for Mandarin classes has been surging," said Pesce, co-founder of Austin-based TCG Advisors, which provides financial services to school districts. "I thought, 'Why not do this virtually?' "
Pesce teamed with Andy Polito, who has taught English in China and is fluent in Mandarin, to start myChinese360. The result is a Web-based Chinese language program led by certified teachers in Beijing.
With the click of a mouse and the use of a webcam, students join an online classroom, where they are guided by an instructor. In addition, students can enter a 3-D virtual world where they take field trips to famous Chinese sites and create class projects.
The program, which costs $600 per semester, began in September with 25 students in Texas, Pennsylvania and California. In January, 1,000 students from those states, as well as Illinois, New York and Massachusetts, are set to start the program.
Pesce expects to have 3,000 users by next September and 20,000 in 2011.
"It took us two years to get state approval, get the technology built, do testing to find out what works for kids and then get it off the ground," he said. "Now we're getting great feedback from school districts, and we're ready to really push forward."
As China becomes a world leader in business, surveys show that demand for Mandarin classes in the U.S. is accelerating, with courses being offered as early as kindergarten. Between 2002 and 2006, enrollment in Chinese language courses at U.S. universities grew by 51 percent, to 51,000, according to a 2007 survey by the Modern Language Association of America.
But Mandarin's growing popularity has left many school districts struggling to find qualified teachers, who have the right educational credentials as well as fluency in Mandarin. The College Board sponsors a guest-teacher program with a Chinese language organization in one effort to address the shortage.
MyChinese360 classes consist of 10 to 20 students who are guided by an instructor who is both a native speaker of Mandarin and certified to teach in the United States. Students are required to attend weekly online interactive audio/video sessions with their teacher and to participate in virtual group activities with their classmates.
The company, which has raised $500,000 from private investors, has hired 15 teachers, who work from rented space on the University of Beijing campus. To ensure that they connect with U.S. teenagers, who are accustomed to interactive learning, the teachers receive training in American education theory, online learning and cross-cultural communication.
"The key to this succeeding is to have the very best teachers who really connect with students," Pesce said. "We pay $18,000 a year, which is unheard-of in China, where the average high school teacher there earns $3,000 a year."
Among myChinese360's supporters is Nola Wellman, superintendent of the Eanes Independent School District, which will begin offering the course to eighth- through 12th-graders for language credit in January.
Westlake High School has offered Mandarin for three years and has one teacher, a native speaker of Mandarin who is certified to teach at the high school level.
"We've been looking for ways to expand our program, but it's hard to find high-quality teachers," Wellman said. "At the same time, we've been wanting to offer some online courses that were first-rate and would be interesting to our students. MyChinese360 intrigued us because it presents the best of all those worlds."
School districts have different payment structures for the program, with some picking up all or half the tab, and others making no contribution. At Eanes, students are responsible for the whole tuition.
At Prosper High School outside of Dallas, freshman Zachary Brandt is one month into the program, which includes a one-hour class on Sundays at 9 p.m. and an hourlong tutoring session on Wednesdays at 9 p.m.
Brandt said he is studying Mandarin, as well as Spanish, because he thinks language skills will help him pursue a career in business.
"It has been really cool to speak Mandarin to people who are in China and who want to help you learn their language," Brandt said. "It's a very different experience than learning it from a textbook."
Brandt's mom, Lasheria, said the $300 portion of the fee that Prosper parents pay "is money well spent. It has been amazing to watch him working with the teacher. The teachers have an excellent command of English, and the classes are very productive.
"And they're also fun — they'll play games and talk about different slang terms," she said. "It's just a fantastic way to learn a language."
Pesce said the company will become profitable when it reaches enrollment of 400. The company is now deciding whether to raise additional money to speed expansion, which could include offering the program in countries such as New Zealand and India.
Pesce, who grew up attending public schools in Brooklyn, N.Y., said he has a special interest in bringing the program to urban school districts, adding that he plans to offer it soon in San Antonio, San Francisco and Boston. The Austin Independent School District has expressed interest in the program, he said.