Stepping Stones – A partnership to make education virtually accessible for children in Asia

September 7, 2017

It’s 8 am in Henan province, China. Twelve fifth-grade students at Guogou Primary School arrange themselves in front of a screen to greet their teacher, Wei Dai.

Wei is an engineer at Bloomberg, and is dialed in via video-conference across the globe in Princeton, New Jersey where it’s 8 pm. Over the next forty minutes, Wei teaches an English lesson with his 11-year-old students as if the thousands of miles separating them were just a few feet.

These students are participating in a new Bloomberg Startup initiative with long-time Bloomberg charity partner, Stepping Stones, a Shanghai-based organization that matches English-speaking volunteer teachers with schools in rural China. Bloomberg has been a supporter of Stepping Stones since 2013.

This Bloomberg Startup initiative wrapped up its first semester of video-teaching in June, which leveraged the expertise of 53 Bloomberg volunteers from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as an additional ten volunteers from Princeton, New Jersey. The project began after a Princeton-based employee Liangyou Chen interacted with Stepping Stones students for an afternoon in Bloomberg’s Shanghai office. Liangyou worked with the Philanthropy & Engagement team to brainstorm ways for Bloomberg employees to support the children Stepping Stones was helping, even if the individuals were on other sides of the globe.

Though English is one of three core subjects in China’s school curriculum, it poses a considerable challenge to rural students. Access to native-speaking English teachers can be difficult – even in major Chinese cities. Knowing English can help significantly boost educational and employment opportunities for those in rural areas.

For Bo Zhang, a fourth grade student at Sun Ji Yuan Hong Bo school in Henan province, the biggest benefit of participating in the course was developing his confidence in speaking English. “I had always tried to avoid speaking English in front of others. In the first class with my Bloomberg teacher, the big smile on the teacher’s face comforted me. By the end of my course, I had learned more than I expected. Not only did my communication skills improve dramatically, but also my courage to try new things.”

The Bloomberg and Stepping Stones collaboration supports students in rural China with English-speaking teachers, but it also speaks to the volunteers. Wei is a programmer at Bloomberg’s Princeton office who grew up in Wuhan, China. He actually began learning English at roughly the same age as these students.

Bloomberg has supported Stepping Stones since 2013, first through in-office mentoring activities. The video-teaching initiative further extends our engagement and reach with children in China’s rural schools.

A new way to teach
While technology delivers some much-needed resources to students in rural China, it can also take time to master. That said, Stepping Stones helps to train volunteers for effective teaching and mentoring, providing tips such as speaking slower and allowing time for regular practice. This enables the volunteers to feel prepared and many report an experience that, while challenging, is also enjoyable and fulfilling.

“You are not physically there with the kids, so you need to make full use of technology while interacting with them through limited facial expressions and body language,” said Shusi He, a volunteer from Bloomberg’s Hong Kong office.

Shusi said she got plenty of help from the classroom teacher, Fanny, who stayed in the classroom to facilitate the lesson in-person while Shusi interacted with the students from the video screen. “Our goal is to create a full English-speaking environment and encourage them to actually use the language to speak,” Shusi said.

A third grade student from Sun Ji Yuan Hong Bo school, Keke Wang, attested to the value of this unique teaching approach. “The teachers would use interesting stories to teach us English words that are hard to remember. The teachers also help correct our pronunciation and accent, which helped improve our oral ability.”

Bloomberg volunteers sign up to rotate teaching a weekly class for 12 weeks at a time. Because of the time difference, volunteers in Asia generally teach from Bloomberg offices in the afternoon while those in North America teach in the evenings from home.

“This teaching experience is truly the best feeling I’ve ever had,” said Lisawaty Indayang, a volunteer who taught from Bloomberg’s Singapore office. Despite some initial trepidation, Lisawaty found ways to engage the kids with games and songs, teaching them words for time, animals and places. “Being perfect wasn’t the goal – it’s all about having a fun lesson and being happy to see all the kids’ English improve greatly over time.”

With the help of Stepping Stones staff and the classroom teacher guiding her volunteer journey, Lisawaty teaches from the Bloomberg Singapore Office.

Giving back and opening doors
So far dozens of Bloomberg employees have donated their time to students in China, teaching basic English lessons to more than 200 primary school children across three schools in Henan and Anhui. Millions of students – known as “left-behind children” – in rural China lack sufficient educational and mentoring support as their parents migrate from the countryside to work long-term in urban manufacturing hubs in China.

This project is a part of Bloomberg Startup, which is the company’s signature educational initiative to help develop the future generation no matter their socio-economic status. The video-teaching program with Stepping Stones has proven especially impactful for the students and Bloomberg employees.

“Joining this program to give my skills to the kids in small towns back in my motherland just feels right,” said Shusi, who is originally from mainland China but now lives and works in Hong Kong.

“If they can get resources sooner, their horizons will be broader. Instead of learning English simply as a way to pass an exam to get into college, it’s all about opening another window to learn about the world,” said Wei, adding, “I like that technology can help improve the connection between people and help us make the world better.”

Today, Stepping Stones’ 300 volunteer teachers provide English lessons – either virtually through video-conference or in-person – to 5,000 students a week.

Read more about our education partnerships in our Bloomberg 35 series, here.

Bloomberg Startup is the company’s global education engagement program offering year-round mentoring and a series of technical and leadership workshops to support academic achievement and college and career readiness for the next generation of leaders. Startup also provides internship and scholarship opportunities for high-achieving high school and college students from our non-profit education partners around the world.