A Study on Real-time Online Tutoring for Legal Orphans in China

Instructor: Xiaoting Chen

Peiyu Xie, Zhongyi Gu, Jingxuan Liu, Hao Liu, Ziming Xia, Wanru Liao, Yucheng Zou, Weiyue Deng

Acknowledgement: Dalian Children’s Village

February 2017



In modern-day China, the number of legal orphans is 573 thousand. [1] With geographical differences, a drought of the educational environment, and an unbalanced distribution of educational resources, many problems in orphans’ basic education still await resolution. In recent years, we have seen a boom in Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). Despite tremendous contributions they have been making, this form of distance education depends too much on self-motivated learning, and lacks communication between teachers and students, making MOOCs incompatible with the particular educational needs for vulnerable groups such as orphans. Besides distance education, short-term on-site teaching programs are also popular. However, this approach overlooks the importance of long-term continuity and coherence in education and risks producing results opposite of volunteers’ original intentions. Therefore, we carefully evaluated the educational conditions and needs of the orphans at Dalian Children’s Village (DCV), critically analyzed the pros and cons of both online and on-site methods, and introduced an innovative approach that will best bridge the gap between orphans and quality educational resources – real-time online tutoring. We looked into existing works on distance education and course planning, conducted interviews at DCV, and drafted a detailed workflow to form the platform of Education without Barriers, with the hope of advancing equity in basic education, and further balancing uneven educational resources.

Keywords:  orphans, legal orphans, distance education, real-time online education, volunteering, educational inequality, nonprofit organization


A Study on Real-Time Online Tutoring for Legal Orphans in China

The United Nations defines orphans as children who have lost either or both of their parents. [1] Out of the total 143 million in the world, there are 13 million orphans with both parents deceased. The rest of them, called “special orphans,” have living parents who do not fulfill their lawful duty of nurturing their children. A “legal orphan” is a special orphan whose parents or legal guardians are in prison. [2] There are 573 thousand legal orphans in modern day China. [1] 90 thousand of them reside at social welfare facilities such as orphanages. There are 545 independent orphanages currently in China, with 95% of the children housed above the age of five. [3,4,5,6]

Although the government has addressed their basic needs such as food and shelter, their higher needs, such as the opportunity to receive a quality education, has been widely neglected. [7,8] A proper education is essential in today’s world. Lack of education results in the loss of job opportunities as well as vital life skills. When the society links diplomas to a person’s competitiveness, a quality highly associated with one’s income and social status, being deprived of the opportunity to receive an education will have a serious impact on the person’s life in the long run.

We measure educational impact using two set of values. First is continuity, which refers to whether it is systematic, standardized and sustainable. Second is its ability to influence the individuals around the person, both among his/her peers and among the next generation. A loss of formal and systematic education does not only hinder the personal development of an orphan but also will have a negative influence on the future generations and the people around. On the contrary, those who equip themselves with a proper education, as well as social support, will bring a positive influence on their society besides personal gain.


Current Condition of Orphan Education

A deficiency in educational resources

Among the 143 million orphans in the world, 86.71% are out of school, which is a percentage significantly higher than in the general children population (9%). [3] This is a result of a severe deficiency in educational resources.

First, educational equipment is scarce. The majority of the orphan population in China live in rural areas. [1] Insufficient governmental funding has led to extremely limited access to technology and other advanced educational equipment. [8]

Second, due to lack of essential educational investment, attention and a family environment, these orphans have a slim chance to get into high schools and colleges after they complete the nine-year compulsory curriculum. This condition is the most serious during elementary school, when these children are deprived of the help they need to develop study interests and habits in the beginning. [8,9]

Besides, children living at orphanages are usually required to do chores, to take care younger children and to accompany visitors on a daily basis, when it is already hard for them to find enough time to concentrate on schoolwork. [9,10]

Third, many of these children do not have skills they can rely on, which causes the fact that those who do not go into high school (reasons are economic concerns, and the wish to leave the orphanage) will have nowhere to go after they are eighteen. There are currently no regulations in China that can help them acquire skills to sustain themselves. [11]

Lack of family environments

Orphans living in social welfare facilities need not only materialistic but also mental support. Lack of a family environment is another reason behind the status quo of Chinese orphans. [12]

Orphans need more emotional care than general children. The reasons are listed below:

First, many orphans are traumatized by the fact that their parents or legal guardians abandoned them. Some assume it is their fault, which results in low self-esteem and depressive thoughts.

Second, orphans, in many cases, face severe discrimination. Condescending views, as well as the notion that “people get what they deserve” can be traumatizing to these children. [13] These misconceptions further depress the children, and the children’s self-consciousness invokes more stigmatization and discrimination, forming a vicious cycle. As children of prisoners, they are labeled as future perpetrators and are forced to bear the weight of their parents’ fault, even though these children themselves are entirely innocent. [2]

Apart from the reasons above, they also lack a personal space in which they can freely express themselves and form close interpersonal relationships.  In an orphanage, children are compelled to cater to visitors and the heads of the orphanage, while in fact, it is themselves who need emotional attention the most. Even chatting at the dinner table is a wish hard to fulfill.

In summary, an environment resembling a family is vital for the child’s development, and its absence is one of the most important reasons that lead to orphans’ complex psychological state. [15]


Limitations of Traditional Methods

As the awareness towards orphan education being raised, MOOCs (massive open online courses) and short-term on-site tutoring are the two major ways that are employed most frequently. However, after throughout research and deliberations, we found that each of them possesses drawbacks that cannot be eliminated.


MOOCs (massive open online courses) are online courses which anyone can access and participate in using the internet. [16] These courses use online libraries or video lectures to provide free and quality education regardless of geographical or time differences.

Nevertheless, there are certain drawbacks, as illustrated below.

First, orphans are not the ideal target population of these MOOCs. A meager completion rate and a high dropout rate is the Achilles’ heel of MOOCs. The completion rate of courses on Coursera is as low as 7% to 9%, and the general completion rate of MOOCs is below 10%. [17,18] This is because MOOCs’ ideal target population consists of those who already have some background knowledge of the course, as well as those who have developed good study habits. Many young orphans have not developed essential study habits, and they also have not acquired substantial background information, so it will be unlikely for them to get the most out of MOOCs without supervision. [16]

Second, MOOCs lack real-time communications between the teacher and the student, making it impossible for teachers to modify the course content base on the unique background of each student, and to answer questions that may arise at any time. Also, face-to-face communications are vital to the formation of emotional bonds between the student and the teacher. Without a bond that is shared by the teacher and the student, class performance will be negatively affected. [19]

Short-term On-site Volunteering

An increasing number of volunteers are participating in short-term on-site volunteering works. The total number of volunteers have reached 300 to 500 million, and 15 billion volunteering hours are accumulated each year. However, this method is flawed as well.

Unprofessional, unsystematic teaching style. Although many people are devoting their time to volunteering work, their abilities to teach are worth questioning. Often with different age, knowledge level, social backgrounds and geographic locations, these volunteers’ style of teaching and communicating are unstandardized in most cases. [20] Many volunteering sessions are during school vacations and are consist of multiple short terms with little or no communication between them. This has resulted in serious outcomes. Under such conditions, volunteers sometimes repeat the content already taught by the volunteers before them. Their opinions often conflict with what is stated in the textbook, and different volunteers often give different answers to the same question. [21]

Mental harm due to lack of training. We have mentioned above that orphans, as a socially vulnerable group, require more intensive emotional care from volunteers. Volunteers should go through professional training to communicate with them in a way that is beneficial to both ends. However, it disappoints us to find out that there are very few organizations which provide their volunteers with training before they meet with the orphans. [22] These untrained volunteers, although with good intentions, may hurt the feelings of the children and subsequently lead to the development of a distorted view of materialistic wealth. Also, since these sessions are usually short, the children have to part with the volunteers after a short time of acquaintance. It may seem trivial to adults, but to young children, leaving the person whom they are emotionally attached to can be a very distressing event.

Flawed motivation. As more and more Chinese students are pursuing an education abroad, many agencies in China have introduced volunteering programs to help the students collect community service hours. In most of these programs, volunteers first go sightseeing before they meet with the children and start teaching them in an unsystematic, unprofessional and unstandardized way. [20] These agencies earn money from these programs to sustain themselves. Even some international nonprofit organizations have difficulty filtering out applicants with insincere intentions. [23] This causes a tremendous waste of resources. What is more, some volunteers gain a sense of superiority through helping the children, causing the children to become more and more defensive upon seeing these volunteers.

Our research at Dalian Children’s Village (DCV) [24] revealed these findings. DCV is an orphanage for legal orphans located in Dalian, China, housing about fifteen children of prisoners.

When we walked into DCV for the first time, we saw a lot of donated objects piled in the corners of the reception room. Posters on the walls were saying, “lighting up the Children’s Village with love.” However, we could not feel any trace of “love” in that room. Instead, we felt that the children were being looked down upon by the donors.

According to Dr. Wang Gangyi, the director of the orphanage, although most of the visitors came there out of kindness, some had other intentions. Some college students came there only to make their resumes more competitive. They talked to the children in a condescending way, and they were not compassionate at all. When the orphans were supposed to be doing homework or chores, the volunteers assembled the children to play games with them. Some volunteers came during school vacations, designed rigid study schedules for the children, and then went sightseeing themselves. There were even a group of college students who decided to contribute their time to help the orphans but could not even get up in the morning until the children brought breakfast to their beds. In the end, the children had insufficient time to complete their homework or to do things they normally would do. These volunteers usually would not come to DCV again after they completed the hours they needed.

Deeply touched by these facts, we formed a partnership with DCV and decided to help fulfill the gap of educational inequality using a new method.

Exploring New Possibilities

Five years ago, four Norwegian volunteers came to a small village in Tanzania. They gave each orphan a goat and taught them how to farm. Years later, not only had they become able to sustain themselves, but they had also become instructors who could pass their knowledge about farming to others. [27]

An opportunity can unfold all kinds of possibilities. For the children at DCV, better educational resources can become their “goat” – the best way for them to change their fate and to stop themselves from walking down the same paths as their parents.

After thorough deliberations, we decided to employ a new and more efficient way to help the children. Many members of Education Without Barriers have confronted educational inequalities in our lives, so we know how much better the world will be if such inequalities are addressed. When we asked Haixiang, an elementary school child why he failed to correct the wrong answers on his worksheets, he told us that he was afraid of seeking help from his teachers. If he asked, he would be criticized for “not paying attention in class,” while in fact, he listened carefully and just could not understand. Haixiang’s dilemma made us realize that these children also needed individualized educational plans, besides just tutoring.

We decided to use a blend of distance education and on-site tutoring. The internet enables us to recruit volunteers from all across the world without the constraint of geographical locations, and it is also far more economically sustainable than on-site volunteering. On the other hand, on-site tutoring gives the volunteers a great opportunity to form personal connections with the orphans. The children will be able to communicate with volunteers in a way similar to a family member, to express themselves freely, and to get help, both online and offline.


Our goal during China Thinks Big

During the “Do Small” stage of China Thinks Big competition, apart from on-site and online research about the orphans’ education and their psychological development, Education Without Barriers will also design a detailed plan surrounding the following three topic areas based on our findings:

  • Preparation needed for an individualized tutoring session [26]
  • Volunteer management and regulations
  • Dividing responsibilities within the organization

Most importantly, we will implement our plans at Dalian Children’s Village and modify them in practice.

Long-term goals

The goal within a year. We plan to expand to cover at least five orphanages in China in a year. At the same time, we will recruit more international volunteers to teach the children.  We will also partner up with other domestic and international NGOs to provide the children with more abundant educational resources, and to help train orphans who will be seeking employment soon.

The goal within two years. Within two years, we hope to investigate and research about orphanages in other countries, and to expand our partnerships to include orphanages in at least two other countries. Also, we hope by that time Education Without Barriers will be able to help other socially vulnerable groups, such as sick children and the children who live in disadvantaged families and places. We will begin researching about their situation, to see if real-time online tutoring will be a good fit for them, and to design personalized educational plans base on individual needs.

The goals within five years. Aside from the goals above, we also plan to cooperate with technological support groups from the Silicon Valley to provide the orphans with multimedia equipment of higher quantity and better quality. Also, we will continue to raise the threshold of recruiting volunteers, making our organization more and more professional. We will design a platform on which volunteers and the teachers of the children can work together to solve various problems that may arise. We also would like to partner up with other educational NGOs and experts to design plans that are the most suitable for each child. We will also recruit psychological professionals to provide the children with counseling. Through direct communications with both the children and our volunteers, they will help improve the children’s mental health and at the same time help us train volunteers.

The Future

After thorough research, investigation, and analysis, Education Without Barriers is offering free real-time online tutoring to orphans, maximally avoiding any drawbacks of traditional approaches. Our volunteers teach base on each child’s unique need, and they provide the orphans with the most continuous, systematic and sustainable tutoring anyone can offer. In the process, an emotional input is also stressed to create a family environment. It is the most advanced and suitable way to tutor orphans so far. [27]

We will be implementing our tutoring plans at several chosen orphanages, and progressively expand them to other orphanages in the world. We will exert ourselves to the utmost extent to recruit and train our volunteers using the strictest standards possible. At the same time, we will cooperate with other nonprofit organizations to provide better educational resources to the orphans. Since money is needed to buy essential educational equipment such as computers, we will apply for funding. We call for the awareness towards orphan education and will try our best to fill in the gap of educational inequality. We would like to invite more people to join us and to support us, so that we can create a better future for these children together.

We believe in the power of education, perseverance, and love. We will help even out the educational resources in the world by providing free real-time online tutoring of the best quality to those in need. Just like what our mission statement says, “It is all about helping others!”


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