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Ginseng English is an online language education program that is applying alternative learning methods to their curriculum. People who enroll at Ginseng English learn the English language not through a native speaker, but by speaking with other learners from across the world. The founder of Ginseng English, Rob Sheppard, strives to make online English instruction of the highest quality easily accessible to people everywhere.
See below for a Q & A with the founder of Ginseng English, Rob Sheppard.
What’s the story behind the initial idea of Ginseng English?
Ginseng English is a response to a bunch of different issues I came across in my experience working in various different ESL settings. In for-profit English schools, profit and good pedagogy often end up at odds. In non-profit there’s a serious shortage of funding and there are waiting lists everywhere. In both sectors, teachers are consigned to a precarious living, frequently cobbling together underpaid hours from different jobs to eke out an existence. The internet is loaded with underqualified tutors selling one-on-one English lessons via Skype using questionable methods, and the widespread misconception that native speakers make better teachers is only exacerbating this issue.
There are certainly lots of times when I think the whole field needs to be razed and rebuilt. But at heart I’m not much of a revolutionary. Most of the time I just think, this could be done better. Recently I guess I’ve grown cocky enough to start thinking I could do this better. So I’m trying. That’s what Ginseng is: an attempt to do it better.
Tell us a little more about your alternative English language learning model.
I don’t even know if I’d call it alternative, at least in terms of teaching.
I never really used to have any faith that quality English classes could come out of video chat. I taught on Skype for a while and it just isn’t built for teaching English. It’s good for two people speaking to each other, or maybe for one person speaking to many people. But one of the hallmarks of a great English class is varied interaction types. Sure, I get up in front of the class and do a little teaching, but any serious English teacher these days knows that you want to try to minimize that teacher-talking time and maximize student-talking time. The way you do this is through varied activity types: small group work, pair work, individual work. Skype doesn’t allow for any of that in any practical way.
But technology is changing rapidly, and at Ginseng we’re taking advantage of some functionality in an up-and-coming software called Zoom that allows us to facilitate that varied interaction type. There are also some fantastic, highly engaging new materials out there that simply weren’t available a decade ago. This is especially important when you’re communicating online and there’s a built-in barrier to engagement. Of course, none of this is cheap. We’re doing things the right way: paying for the software and the best materials we can get, and the best teachers out there, paying them well. This puts our prices above a lot of the competition that uses free software, less well trained teachers, and scanned textbooks.
But this brings us to the business model, which is definitely a little alternative. We want Ginseng to be the best language learning option online, but we’re not looking to be exclusive. We’re a mission-driven organization, and one of the most crucial aspects of our mission is the word access: we strive “to provide learners around the world with access to online language instruction of the highest quality.”
The way we provide that access is by guaranteeing that 10% of our class ‘seats’ go free of charge to students who can’t afford to pay. The group learning model allows us to set aside these seats at no significant financial cost. We simply forego the additional profit and donate the textbooks and other materials. We call this initiative Ginseng Impact.
You are traveling to China to get face to face with future students. What are the advantages of traveling to China and meeting face to face with students?
Nothing can replace a face-to-face interaction. Learning online is still a new idea send there’s still a gap to be bridged for our target demographic. We want to get out there, deliver free, in-person sample lessons, then show learners how we’re able to replicate that experience online.
The Ginseng English Anywhere Tour is going to be traveling around the world, starting in Shanghai, delivering pop-up English classes in public parks, university quads, and possibly some less expected places. Anybody up for a mountaintop grammar lesson? Perhaps some conversation pointers on a junkboat in Halong Bay? Stay tuned for more on that front…
What organizations are Ginseng English currently partnered with to offer free English education?
We don’t have any partnerships finalized yet and are still actively seeking nonprofit partners that are connected with populations in need of free English courses. Please email Impact@ginse.ng if you serve such a population and are interested in partnering!
How can teachers get involved to be a part of Ginseng?
We’re hiring! And I meant to say more about our hiring practices. For one thing, we are paying very well. I won’t put numbers down here, but suffice it to say our hourly rate is more than double what other online English schools are paying. We believe that teachers are the most valuable asset a school can have. That said, we want exceptional, dynamic teachers, who can make an online classroom come to life. Our somewhat quirky video-based application process is reflective of that. We hope some readers might apply!