Praxis Language, the company behind the popular Chinese language learning service ChinesePod, was founded in 2005 by Ken Carroll, Hank Horkoff and Steve Williams. ChinesePod brings to life the trio’s vision of an interactive, web-based language learning system that allows students to learn a language at their own pace. Vice-President of Marketing Ken Carroll, a long-time English teacher and owner of a chain of English language schools in Shanghai, talked to us about the success of ChinesePod and where new technology will take their learning system.
Q: So how is business these days?
A: [Laughs]. It’s been extremely good. We’ve been very, very lucky. My view is that ChinesePod touched a nerve at the time and the place we launched it. There was nothing like it, and there was very little, even in terms of book materials, to help people learn Chinese. Not only did ChinesePod appear on the scene as a plausible way to learn Chinese, but it also had this "Web 2.0" cachet. There was nobody competing with it, so it took off very quickly. Almost from the day we launched, it had traction, to the point where now we have maybe 250,000 users around the world.
Q: What are the other projects you have going?
A: ChinesePod is the first, but we’ve also dipped our toes into other languages, such as Spanish and Italian. But the marketing challenges are very different. Those languages have an oversupply of teaching materials and a long history. We’ve played with those projects from a content perspective, but we’ve never put the full marketing effort into it, so they haven’t gotten the response ChinesePod has had. But this winter, we are embarking on a new phase, a project we’ve been working on for two years now: a mobile learning network. The time has come for mobile learning. We believe it will emerge as a very powerful force.
Q: What do you mean by mobile learning?
A: What it means is that the learner can either download or install the content onto a cell phone or other mobile device, and the user can then access that learning content whenever they wish to. That content has been around for a while, and we have developed that content to deliver it to your iPod or whatever. We believe that next year will bring an entirely new level of learning, and it will be particularly relevant to China. We’ve got 3G emerging in China and smartphones to handle it. We believe we are going to see an explosion in the usage of smartphones and 3G. I’m not a tech guy, but my view is that 3G will do for the handset what broadband did for the PC. It means that people will be able to access content like video, audio, whatever. In Tokyo I’ve seen people do it, and we believe in the next few years they will be doing it in China. We will have a mobile platform that will work on all of those phones, and it will do in a mobile context what we have done for ChinesePod in a web-based context. In other words, we have designed this platform around the handset, not a PC. A concrete example is the mobile application: a standalone thing that lives on your phone. The old form of mobile learning is when people take a website and do a mobile version of a website. But what we’ve done is design a mobile platform from the ground up. We envisage the environment where this platform will be utilised. Say you had a group of business people in an office and there are six learners and a teacher. In this sort of environment, people miss class, they’re late… so they don’t get the material. Corporate learners have very low attendance rate in these classes. A mobile platform would solve this problem. With a mobile platform, a teacher could set up a class where on day two or day three students start missing class but can still receive the lesson. There’s a platform for them to download the lesson and interact with the social network, the other people in their group, in real time. You download the lesson and listen to it on the subway. Maybe the class happened last night, but you can still listen to the class and join into the discussions in a thread that builds upon the class.
Q: Why is this going to do what previous technology-based solutions couldn’t?
A: I’ve been a language teacher for years, so I’m pretty obsessed with this particular question. Language teaching in general is a pretty abysmal discipline. The way I learned languages in schools was completely ineffective. It’s pretty much been a failure. Plus, institutionalized education, this teacher-centered notion that a teacher can teach you a language, is wrong. It’s a 19th century notion.
A: One of the old reasons is that language is seen as something the teacher does to the students. The teacher knows, the students don’t know, so the teacher explains the language to the students. But students need to be engaged in the language, not listen to lectures about the language. These older technologies were based on the same flawed premise. The CD-ROMs and the tapes still treat the learner like an idiot and explain the language to them. The French on those tapes, "le plume de ma tante": it’s useless, this kind of approach. It’s the equivalent of showing you a map of a country instead of taking you there. Becoming familiar with the grammatical map of the language does not give the student the ability to speak, because speaking is a skill, not a body of knowledge.
Q: So how are students engaging more with a language on a mobile phone?
A: Once you’ve got the mobility, you’ve got 24 hour access; you’ve got your audio lessons, your dictionary, your flashcards. There’s people, content and system. Learners need to be connected to the teacher, the content, the students, and to the platform that helps them manage it. The more access they have to this system, the more opportunities there are to engage them.
Q: What about PC-based solutions, like Rosetta Stone?
A: They’ve done better than some other systems, but what was missing was the people. You can’t interact with it.
Q: Do you assess ChinesePod students for comparison or to measure their improvement?
A: There was a New York Times article about how this kind of technology can be a more effective teaching method. As for actual real hard data on how much students improve, I’m not sure I can quantify that, but they are coming back, they’re signing up for more, they’re buying more. The community is our yardstick.
Q: How big is the market?
A: I don’t know, but I do know a lot of people are overrating it. The Chinese government, for example, says 30 million people worldwide are studying Chinese and that will grow to 100 million in the next few years. We don’t believe that, we think that’s a wild exaggeration by maybe five or 10 times, but clearly Mandarin is an emerging language.
Q: How willing are people to spend on this?
A: We’re charging and we’re doing well by it. We give away the basic level for US$9 per month. For US$199 per month, the teacher will call you every day and give you a lesson.
Q: It seemed like when ChinesePod first launched, a few months later there were a dozen copycat products. How do you deal with the relative ease of market entry here?
A: In terms of the podcasts, we don’t have any large competitors, just a lot of small competitors. We were lucky to develop the brand early and attract a loyal core of customers and assume the leadership position. We work hard to maintain that; I think it would be hard for a newcomer to come in and rob us of that. Our lessons are designed in some cases by our users themselves. It’s hard to duplicate that, too. We aren’t saying we won’t have to compete in the future, but right now it’s our game to lose.
Q: How much discipline does the ChinesePod system require? Don’t a lot of people go out and buy language-learning technology and stop using it? Why is that?
A: These language-learning products are not engaging them because they are not very interesting. If you listen to our newbie podcasts, for example, the whole point is to put it into context. Some people will learn Chinese no matter what without any help from technology. Others will never learn it. We are looking at how we can convert those swing voters, the majority of the population, who just need a little bit more to make it interesting. I guess I’m more sanguine about the potential for language technology.