2007-12-28 20:08:34 China Daily
Fred Rao hopes to make learning the Chinese language accessible in every corner of the globe, as even the most remote regions now have Internet access.
His company's live online one-to-one video classes are now enabling many foreigners, including a taxi driver in Bolivia, to learn the language and its characters.
Founder and CEO Rao operates eChineseLearning.com, China's largest video-based online Chinese tutoring website.
Since starting the operation last December, the website has signed up more than 400 overseas students ranging in age from 4 to 74 living in 42 countries. New student enrollment is growing at a two-digit rate month-on-month.
In eChineseLearning's studio, dozens of teachers present Chinese classes in front of computers, giving the office the look of a busy call center.
Using the company's self-developed teaching software, along with writing tablets and telephony like Skype, students in far away places can listen, talk to and see teachers, as well as the blackboards behind them.
The one-on-one teaching model enables students to schedule lessons and choose course content themselves.
"Sometimes after I see a Chinese movie, I asked my tutor to talk about my favorite scenes, or when I plan go to a Chinese restaurant, I ask the tutor to teach me how to order Chinese food in Chinese," Gil Lan, a law professor in York University in Toronto, who has been studying Chinese on eChineseLearning for five months, says in a telephone interview.
"The customized courses are more flexible and interesting, but only charge 50 yuan an hour, compared to the C$40 (the equivalent of 210 yuan) an hour at Toronto's weekend Chinese schools," he says.
"It usually takes a year to finish a whole textbook in a Canadian community school, but only five months in my tutor's class on eChineseLearning."
The growing popularity of eChineseLearning has already provided work for 40 teachers, most of whom majored in teaching Chinese as a foreign language.
Demand is so strong that the firm is now shorthanded - and the shortage could become more acute as increasing numbers of foreigners want to learn Chinese.
The Economist magazine estimates that there are about 30 million foreigners across the world learning Chinese today.
Only about 80,000 foreigners are able to come to China to study the language, according to figures released by the Ministry of Education.
Rao estimates the value of the Chinese language education market at $1 billion.
In the United States alone there are currently over 700,000 children of Chinese descent whose native language is English or another language. These days they are showing growing interest in Chinese.
"It is not practical to start a Chinese school to cater to a small group, but an Internet-based system can do it," Rao says.
In August eChineseLearning paired with Sina.com, which has over 1.4 million registered users and an average of 1.5 million daily page views in North America, to begin an educational channel to cash in on the largest Chinese Internet portal's customer base.
The encouraging prospects of e-learning, as well as the growing popularity of Chinese-language study, have prompted a number of venture capitalists to approach eChineseLearning.com and offer investment capital.
Rao is now considering branching out to second-tier cities like Tianjin and Xi'an and will recruit teachers locally to build a chain of low-cost teaching centers.
"Teacher salaries account for the largest portion of our operational costs, but wages are lower in smaller cities compared to Beijing and Shanghai," he says.
Rao was brought up in a household of educators. His father was the former deputy-editor-in-chief of the People's Education Press and his mother was an English teacher.
During his college life in the United States from 2000 to 2002, Rao co-founded a weekend Chinese community school called the Colorado Springs Chinese Culture Institute.
After returning to China, he allied in 2003 with fellow Chinese Stanford graduates to start the video-sharing website UUMe.com.
As chief operating officer of Uume.com, Rao helped build a user base of millions and successfully attracted three rounds of venture capital investment from a number of firms including Legend Capital and ACCEL fund.
Video-sharing is now growing in popularity in China but the market has become overcrowded.
Moving into the e-learning market as a pioneer - especially teaching Chinese language live online - could be the niche Rao's been looking for.