Filipino teacher Raven Kate De Leon is in demand, spending up to 10 hours a day at her home computer surrounded by mini cars and stuffed toys that she uses as props to inject fun into her English classes for students far away in China. Since the coronavirus took a hold in China at the start of this year and forced schools and offices to shut down, thousands of Filipino teachers are cashing on overtime as grade schoolers and professionals in China, Japan and beyond turn lockdowns into opportunities to better their English.
One of only a few countries in Asia that can combine affordable e-learning with an ample supply of teachers and strong English proficiency, the Philippines is uniquely placed to absorb demand in Asia for Internet language classes.
Online platforms like 51Talk of China Online Education Group and RareJob Philippines, and a host of smaller local Philippine outfits, have seen demand and usage soar since February, bucking the devastating effect on the world's economies from coronavirus, which has infected more than 337,500 people and killed more than 14,500.
"I usually have 20 classes every day, so I could meet the demand of the great number of students nowadays," said De Leon, 22, who works for 51Talk.
"I take that opportunity to give them a fun and fruitful distraction because I know they're stressed, worried."
De Leon is currently now working from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., without a day off.
51Talk charges around 45 yuan ($6.36) per 25-minute session, with teachers earning around 130 pesos ($2.53) per hour.
China shut down its schools in February to contain infections. More than two dozen countries followed suit, sending more than 290 million children and youths out of school, data from UNESCO, the United Nation's cultural agency, showed.
"More and more, the safe way to continue learning is to go online," said Jennifer Que, country head of 51Talk , which has 20,000 partner-teachers in the Philippines.
Many online teachers in the Philippines typically work from home, which has insulated them from the home quarantine measures that have devastated businesses and restricted tens of millions in the Philippines, which has nearly 400 confirmed cases.
Jump in value
Shares in the $419-million China Online Education has surged 154% year-to-date, compared to the NYSE composite index's 34 percent slump in the same period.
Other e-learning firms like TAL Education Group, New Oriental Education & Technology Group Inc and GSX Techedu Inc have seen their shares rally up to 24%, 17% and 112%, respectively, notably at the height of the school closures in mid-February.
RareJob, which has around 6,000 Filipino tutors and specialises in the Japan market, saw its users nearly double to 800,000 since February, CEO Gaku Nakamura told Reuters. Japan shut down its schools last month to halt the coronavirus spread.
"In these kinds of situation, parents do not want their kids to go out," Nakamura said, adding that RareJob's monthly fee of $60 for Japanese students and $100 for business-level English is cheaper by up to 40 times versus learning centres in Japan.
Japanese teenagers form the bulk of Kristine Concepcion's 26 daily students.
"I'm happy to be of service in this situation and I admire them for still choosing to learn," said Concepcion, a RareJob tutor of five years, who uses candy, Astroboy and stuffed toys to keep her child students engaged.
But not everywhere can cope, including the southern city of Davao, which has a backoffice industry comprising 50,000 mostly call centre agents, but no more than 300 home-based online tutors.
"We could not meet the demand," said Samuel Matunog, president of the industry group, ICT Davao. "Every day, we are asked if we still have a supply of teachers."
Regardless of whether school and work shutdowns will continue for much longer, online learning firms are hoping to leave a lasting impression on an underserved market.
51Talk wants to engage 100,000 Filipino tutors by 2025 or earlier and hopes its teachers will get good ratings and referrals after the surge in customers to ensure demand after coronavirus containment measures are over.
"Of course we don't want this outbreak to last a long time but this is the best moment. If teachers do their best, even after things normalise, students will look for them," said country head Que.
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