Since my early days of teaching English in Japan, I could see that there are many ways the English teaching industry in Japan could be improved. I felt that, in particular, there seem to be many Eikaiwa schools which simply paired up a learner with a foreign teacher and left them to it, while not really offering much more value than that, apart from perhaps a cozy classroom atmosphere and some complimentary tea or coffee.
There are, of course, many English schools which do offer more than that: rigorous syllabus construction, and regular teacher appraisals, for example. But my experience at these places led me to believe that the actual outcomes that learners gain from these places seemed only marginally better on the whole. Rigorously constructing a syllabus could mean the school lacks the flexibility that a lot of learners crave, and at the end of the day, the results students get rely entirely on how good their teacher is, and this is subjective to each learner. This makes it difficult for those evaluating the teachers to make effective evaluations.
It struck me how a lot of the value of the Eikaiwa industry seems to be going into the wrong places. How much of the student’s lesson fee is going towards the ads you see on trains, or busy middle managers bent on hitting targets that have almost nothing to do with the development of the students’ ability? Who knows, but I bet it’s a lot.
Where the Sharing Economy comes in
It was then that I discovered that many ‘sharing economy’ style businesses had popped up, which allow students to directly interact with teachers. I signed up to a few, and connected with a few private students; through one of them, I met an incredibly kind-hearted and loyal student, who I continue to teach to this day.
What I discovered is that these services had emulated the ‘introduce the student to a foreign teacher’ model in a way that could be automated. Some choose to have learners pay through their app, while others leave this to the student and the teacher (like SenseiStar does). Either way, the learner is able to save on lesson fees as they do not have to pay for the expensive languages schools’ expensive overheads. The teachers are also able to be paid more and have a flexible work life balance: it’s a win win.
So I created SenseiStar…
I knew then that I wanted to create a service that would help connect students and teachers, but how would I create something different? It occurred to me that a lot of these sites were simply taking payment to send learners a teacher’s email address, so a direct messaging system was essential.
I then realized that there is another problem: how will students know that they are reaching out to a genuine, committed teacher from just a bunch of fields on their profile?
In addition to deleting profiles that do not get updated for a period of time, to ensure that students could connect with the best teachers, I decided I would create a system that awarded teachers with points for their activity on the site and app. Fancy computer people call this ‘gamification’.
In a way, SenseiStar is a platform that allows freelance teachers to perform their own marketing. Just like any business, those who choose to do little or no marketing will receive less attention. This means that SenseiStar is not the kind of app where teachers can simply “set and forget” their profiles and expect to get lots of private students.
Teachers who login to the site regularly, produce interesting content, and respond to questions in forums receive Sensei Stars which help them rank higher in searches. This helps the students understand who is active (and who is likely to be responsive) as well as get a feel for who they are reaching out to for lessons.
In 2023, we will be designing courses for teachers so that learner can see that they have passed an essential skills test. Until then, collecting Sensei Stars is the best way to show our community of learners that you mean business!