Cindy Mi is the co-founder of a fast-growing education startup, but she didn't always enjoy learning. As a student, she often felt disengaged with the English classes at her middle school in China's Hebei province.

"I had to spend a lot of time reciting vocabulary or handwriting and copying words. It always bored me, and made me want to give up learning," she said.

Things changed when Mi when encountered a teacher who had a different approach. She was encouraged to watch movies in English and read English literature, as part of her effort to speak the language more proficiently. Mi developed a deeper interest in the arts, social studies and science, as her English vocabulary, grammar, and syntax improved.

In 2013, the experience inspired her to launch Vipkid, a Beijing-based startup that pairs children throughout China between the ages of five and 12 with an English teacher in North America. For $20, each child receives a 25-minute, one-on-one online session through the company's streaming platform. This technology lets Vipkid analyze how well the children are learning, and make incremental changes to the system over time. Mi wouldn't go into much detail over how exactly the platform works, but says the company is using some machine learning tools.

The company has already raised more than $125 million in venture capital from firms including Sequoia Capital, Yunfeng Capital, Innovation Works, Matrix Partners, and Bryant Stibel -- the investment firm run by retired NBA all-star Kobe Bryant.

Bryant, who last month launched the fund with co-founder Jeff Stibel, said it took him less than five minutes to decide to invest in Vipkid. He and Mi were introduced through a mutual friend at Learn Capital, another firm that has invested in the company. "Their platform is changing things," the athlete-turned-venture capitalist said in a recent interview with the L.A. Times. "It was a no-brainer for me. We have to look for companies adding value to society, helping kids learn and grow whether through education, nutrition."

Mi woudn't disclose how much Bryant invested in Vipkid, but she hints that he's planning to become more directly involved with the day-to-day operations.

"When I met him at the New York Stock Exchange a few weeks back, he said that he wanted to help us create content, and teach the kids about the patience of learning, and the persistence of learning," she said.

A fast-growing company

In just 18 months, Vipkid has grown from 200 to 30,000 active students. Currently, the company employs 3,000 part-time teachers, who earn between $20 and $25 per hour. It's on track to do as much as $billion RMB ($150 million) in revenue for 2016, and expects to turn a profit by the end of the year.

What really sets the company apart, explains Mi, is its more holistic approach to education. "The biggest benefit [to using Vipkid] is that everybody wants to become a global citizen. The kids are not just learning English, they're learning English so they can know more about the world. Then, they can have the planet at their feet," she explains.

A major market opportunity

The education technology sector has become increasingly attractive to venture capitalists as of late. In 2015, a record $2.86 billion was invested into edtech companies, according to data from PitchBook. Businesses such as Udacity, and Lynda.com -- which was acquired by LinkedIn for $1.5 billion in 2015 -- are able to attract and retain customers, thanks to their easy-to-use and inexpensive tools for learning languages, coding, photography, animation, or other skills or hobbies.

The advent of machine learning, including voice and facial recognition software, also plays a significant role in improving the quality of these virtual teaching platforms over time. Computers can moderate group discussions, for instance, or provide feedback on a student's learning habits. Therein lies the advantage for Vipkid to be developing its own video-conferencing platform -- rather than relying on a third-party service like Skype.

Is technology actually improving the way we learn?

As many academics suggest, incorporating technology into the classroom does have its drawbacks, inasmuch as a machine may not be able to take into consideration more emotional factors to learning.

In a recent interview, Neil Selwyn, a professor of education at Monash University in Australia, and the author of Is Technology Good for Education?, expressed opposition to the idea of "digital education" being seen as an "edgy alternative." He wisely suggested that we need to ask better questions: "What is being ignored (or lost altogether) in the current rush toward learning analytics, personalized learning, adaptive testing, and flipped classrooms?"

Vipkid, for its part, says it benefits from keeping humans at its core. And while it faces competition in China from such competitors as ABC360 and VIPABC, Mi is confident that her teachers -- all of whom are required to have at least a bachelor's degree, and a K-12 teaching certificate -- are of a higher caliber. That, she hopes, will keep the students coming back over time.

Published on: Sep 12, 2016