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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Interview with Kevin Chen, italki (language learning): Innovators in E-Learning Series

Web-based techniques for learning languages are expanding, and social networking is proving to be one of the most effective approaches. has adopted an open platform approach, and the resources have remained free. In addition, it has recently added new features which encourage language learners to receive tutoring from native speakers. The platform allows individuals to create classrooms, and to charge a fee for tutoring. Keven Chen, co-founder of, discusses his vision for the future.

1. What is your name and your relation to e-learning?

My name is Kevin Chen and I co-founded with Yongyue Jiang. is a website that helps people learn languages. My ideas for italki came from my experiences trying to learn Mandarin Chinese in Shanghai. While I was studying, I had this thought that a language learning social network would be well-suited for solving problems like finding language partners and sharing learning materials. I also thought that a social network could become the foundation of something much larger.

2. What is italki and how is it different from other sites and services?

We've tried to make italki as community-oriented and free as possible. We're unique in this way. Many of our competitors have their own proprietary content, and some have a specific pedagogical approach. We're trying to be more like an open platform and resource center.

We believe our users should choose their own learning (or teaching) methodology. All of our content is generated by our users. The help that users receive from the website comes from other users. Users practice speaking a language with each other, and they answer each others' questions.

It's impressive to see how much help you can get on italki from people freely donating their time. People used to ask me "Why do users do this?" I'm not sure what the exact answer is. I guess there are a lot of good people out there.

3. What is your new marketplace feature?

The language marketplace is where we connect teachers and students for paid language instruction. Students can choose a teacher after considering their experience, academic qualifications, teaching style, lesson price, or whatever criteria they think is most important. Teachers can set a price based on demand for the language they teach and their own economic expectations. We hope that the language marketplace will give students that previously could not get language instruction the opportunity to learn. We also hope that the marketplace will give teachers in remote locations access to students around the world. We believe there is a lot of demand for language instruction that isn't being met due to geography -- and this is a problem the internet was meant to solve.

4. It's great that you're making it easier for people to share skills and expertise. There may be unintended benefits along the way. Can you think of what they might be?

We think there are many benefits that come from bringing together people from different backgrounds. An obvious one is that we hope italki can promote greater cultural understanding. You can learn a great deal more than just the language, when you talk with someone from another country.

Certainly you can make friends on the site. I think italki is a special kind of social network in that it isn't where you go to connect to your existing friends -- it's where you go to find strangers that are interested in sharing their knowledge and experience with you.

5. Here's a skeptic's question: Wouldn't it be just as easy for people to connect via voiceover IP and pay via PayPal or gift certificates? What are the advantages to being involved in the italki solution?

While that's a possibility, we see ourselves playing an important role in dealing with issues like customer fulfillment, dispute settlement, and financial transactions. By intermediating the transaction, students can use whatever methods they have to pay into the system. Paypal is convenient in many parts of the world, but unfortunately not all. In addition, italki helps to protect both the students and teachers from fraudulent behavior. The money is held temporarily by italki pending the confirmation process. Finally, teachers can build up an online reputation this way. As teachers use the system, their students are able to signal to other users on italki that the teacher is reliable and qualified.

6. What are some of the underlying pedagogical pillars that support your endeavor? What are some of your educational strategies and philosophies?

We're trying to avoid taking a stand on a specific pedagogical methodology. We believe every student and teacher has a way of learning that is best suited for them. Some users on italki use the site as a complement to their existing language studies at school. Some users have full-time jobs, and are using italki as their primary source for education. Undoubtedly, there are a broad range of goals and levels of commitment on italki.

In general, we have a belief that using a language in actual communication is a key part of acquiring mastery of a language. Language immersion is arguably the key benefit of living abroad, and we're trying to provide something similar to this --maybe you can call it "virtual immersion." Even a few sessions practicing a language with a native speaker can do wonders for listening comprehension, pronunciation, and general fluency. I'm sure students have witnessed the benefits of spending a summer studying abroad -- we hope to recreate some of that effect online with italki.

7. Interactivity, community, and engagement are great -- how about outcomes assessment? Do you have any way to help people with standardized tests of proficiency that they'll have to pass?

Outcomes assessment is something that is important, and we have some ideas for future features. In general, we rely on the community to create services for our members. For example, we have teachers that offer classes specifically devoted to standardized test preparation. There are also test preparation study notes that users have uploaded to the site. Again, we see italki as a platform, and hopefully our users can respond to the needs of the community.

8. Final question: any encouraging, visionary thoughts?

I imagine that in the future, people will find learning to be a lifelong process, and that learning a foreign language will be an essential part of every human being's education. Getting taught a language from a native teacher presently living in their home country will seem completely natural. The demand to learn languages will be completely satisfied everywhere -- from rare languages being offered in every high school and college -- to every developing country having access to all the teachers they need for international languages like English.

Just like for wikipedia, there will be open source language textbooks, collaboratively created, and free for everyone with an internet connection. These materials will be more than just text -- they'll come in video, audio, and every content format that can be stored online. And these materials will reach into every language pair, and even cover the languages that are in danger of extinction.

People learning foreign languages will immediately become a member of a community of students, teachers and tutors, who are interested in sharing their knowledge, their culture, and their time. Learning a foreign language will become an instant and natural gateway to having friends around the world.

It's a big dream, and I hope that italki can play a part in building that.

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