Reflection point: Usability, Accessibility, and Ethics
My obsession with VIPKid
VIPKid (VK) is an online teaching and education company. According to BusinessWire, VIPKid had been honored and awarded as one of the Best Places to Work in 2020.
Between 2020–2021, I had taught 260 students, 1,130 classes, and 28,250 minutes. (No, I didn’t tabulate these myself. It was part of the gamification system that kept teachers going).
VIPKid was available as a website, a pc software, and an app (which connected to your smartwatches). Let’s break these down.
The website was used for professional development such as taking courses and quizzes to gain new certifications. Here you can see the various certifications to be held. The more certifications you earn, the more classes you can teach — $$.
The software was used for conducting classes. In the classroom, the main classroom function was “Start/finish” class which is the CTA button on the top left. There is a visible countdown timer for both “time until class” and “time class has lapsed. With clear icons and captions, the teacher is able to switch slides, chat (for note-taking or for technical help), and refresh/switch between “Lines” (in case the internet was unsteady).
There were also AR functions to help older students understand the content. For younger students, it kept them engaged during class.
The view of classes by day helps teachers have a quick overview of which students they were teaching at what time, and what class content to prepare for. The use of colors helps teachers understand things to look out for like “New lesson” in pastel yellow highlight.
The on/off “24h” button and toggle function to open/close slots made it easy for teachers to decide. The blue “24h” button indicates that the feature is on, allowing students to book classes within 24hour notice. The different shape of “Peak” indicates that this is not a button, but simply a note to say this is a “Peak hour” (so to encourage teachers to open slots).
The buttons are large with enough spacing for users to click on them without making any errors.
VIPKid will notify the teacher when a class has been booked or canceled. Therefore, a smartwatch becomes handy if the teacher has less than 30 minutes to run home to prepare for a class.
Those without a smartwatch can easily set integrated alarms to help notify them of upcoming classes.
Besides having an accessible and usable system for the teacher, VIPKid knows how to keep its audiences engaged.
Students and teachers can send each other e-cards with pre-determined messages. There were many backgrounds and occasions (e.g. Happy New Year! Happy Birthday! Feel better.) to choose from.
The badges help teachers achieve a sense of belonging — with a “share” function for competition/show off.
Besides gamification, VIPKid also has a functional mobile app that is organized and easy to use.
The app uses a good balance of icons, images, and text to help teachers navigate. The color is minimal and only used in cases where the teacher needs to pay extra attention, such as the icon of the avatar and the star under the student’s name. (This icon means this is a new student.)
Since most students were based in China, those teaching full-time from North America would have to work in the Beijing Time Zone. BJT is 12–13 hours ahead of Eastern Time. This meant teaching during North American sleeping hours.
Often, teachers would teach while on a family vacation because… VIPKid was very addictive. They would set up shop in the bathroom so they could teach at night without disturbing their family in the same hotel room.
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1. Visibility of system status: Once a class was booked, a notification would immediately pop up on the app (and integrated smart watch) so teachers had enough time to prepare.
2. Match between system and real world: The “Exit” button of the computer all was located on the top right corner which is equivalent to a browser window.
3. User control and freedom: The toggle buttons to open/close slots (on the app) gives teachers a sense of control and freedom.
4. Consistency and standards: The bottom navigation icons (on the app) are consistent with most apps such as “Home”, “Discover”, and “Account”
5. Error prevention: In the classroom, when the teacher clicks “Finish Class”, an additional message pops up saying “Are you sure you want to finish class?” This gives the teacher a chance to say no in case they clicked it by accident. (Once the class is finished, it cannot be re-started). This might be because the button is very close to the “Star” and “Thumbs up” button which is frequently used during class. VIPKid could consider moving these further away from the “Finish class” button to prevent errors.
6. Recognition rather than recall: In the classroom, there are three icons (i.e. microphone, video, and settings). These are recognizable icons for turning on/off mic/video and adjusting the appropriate settings.
7. Flexibility and efficiency of use: In the classroom, even though there is an “Arrow right” button on the slides to click to go to next slide, I discovered that by pressing the arrow key on my keyboard also helps move the slides forward. This saved time by dedicating my mouse to “giving stars” and using the keyboard to progress through slides.
8. Aesthetic and minimalistic design: There were definitely sections in the classroom (such as tips and info) that became unnecessary as I gained more teaching experience. It would have helped if VK enabled the option to minimize some sections as the slides were sometimes difficult to see. Instead of three columns, it would’ve been helpful to use only two with the classroom taking up 2/3 of the horizontal space.
9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: When the system detected the the internet was unstable, it prompted the teacher to “move the laptop to somewhere with more stable internet”.
10. Help and documentation: The classroom had “Tips” and “Info” to help new teachers navigate their way through slides. The “Fireman” was also accessible if you needed help. When hovering over the icons on the top right of the classroom (i.e. Line8), a message would appear explaining what it was.
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Was it ethical to “gamify” the teaching experience? Yes and no. Parents paying a high price for their children’s education do have high expectations. Once they find a teacher they like, they expect consistency, high quality, and commitment. VIPKid notes that any interruptions (e.g. internet outages, class cancellations, inconsistent class time offerings, or poor lighting) can affect the algorithm of your “popularity”. Even though there were many other platforms (i.e. mainly Magic Ears & GogoKid) that delivered similar content with similar if not slightly better pay, most teachers still ended up with VIPKid.
If it wasn’t for the new regulation banning overseas foreigners from teaching English as a Second Language, I would probably still be teaching with VIPKid.