Online education in China during the pandemic – The diplomat


Beijing, 8 a.m. – Sitting at her desk, Wang Yao checks in online with her class. She reviews the PowerPoint presentations sent by her teacher for the day and gets to work, checking the WeChat messages from her classmates. It has been two months since she went to school. “We had the holidays, then the virus came,” she explains on Zoom.

Many companies in China could say the same. Central banks rushed to plug the gushing wound of the country’s economy, proof manufacturers and small and medium-sized enterprises with injection formulas aimed at reducing their borrowing costs and protecting their credit applications. At a time when SMEs, which contribute 60% of China’s GDP, are saved left and right, one industry has resisted the trend: online education.

Even before the quarantine measures forced several million people inside, China’s online education was doing particularly well, holding steady amid the crisis. Chinese venture capital fell sharply last year. With the world’s largest student body of 176 million K-12 students in fierce competition – especially on the extremely tough college entrance exam, which sees only 40% getting a up to college every year – every extra effort counts. Online education tools have been a natural progression for China, as more than 800 million Chinese citizens are internet users, with an impressive fiber, broadband, and the Internet coverage even in many remote areas. STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics), together with K-12 education, constitute the largest segments of the Chinese EdTech market, which reached in 2018 $ 300 billion in revenue. Investors did not fail to notice this opportunity. HolonIQ reports that between 2014 and 2018, investment in Chinese educational companies was one and a half times the total amount spent in the United States, the European Union and India combined.

EdTech’s potential user base expanded further on January 27 when the Education Department decided to postpone the spring semester of schools and kindergartens to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Suddenly, over 278 million students moved online. The effectiveness of the transition is a testament to the central government’s premium on a technology-backed curriculum, with the State Council investing $ 6 billion in AI and technology support for education in 2019.

“I think at that point we felt an increase in sales,” recalls Chris, co-founder of Beverly English, an online school that connects Chinese students with native English speakers abroad.

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Offline businesses affected by the quarantine measures are considering making the switch. Senior education consultant Mr Mitchell agrees: “It really got us thinking about how we should capitalize on online resources in the future and… humanize our work in a way that we don’t. did not need to consider before. “

Some students quickly understood the flexibility of online learning. “It’s more relaxed”, laughs Wang Yao, “there are no supervisors! “

Lu Yang, a tenth grader at Nanjing Foreign Language School, agrees. Although he always completes his six lessons a day, “time and place are flexible, there are no restrictions.” This is a far cry from the usually highly regulated student life, where wakening at 5:30 am and 12 hours of continuous study are common. Students usually go to school during the week to avoid wasting time getting home.

Teachers also recognize the flexibility offered by online learning, which they have never used before. Middle and high school students are particularly suited to this type of home learning, explains an educator from Tianjin Nankai High School. Praising online resources offered by their schools, such as DingDing, teachers note that students were able to view content at their own pace, rewinding as necessary. A Guangzhou-based math teacher adds that it saves time for teachers who now only need to teach the subject once, and students appreciate the immediate feedback on their work. “What’s also interesting is that I see the results of the exam throughout the process, because the computer checks them immediately,” says Lu Yang.

But these benefits are seen as the best parts of an inconvenient situation. Many teachers have ended up using the collaboration tools already at their disposal that they are familiar with: WeChat, QQ and Zhi Xue Wang. “I have never used online platforms for my studies and prefer to use real-time communication to chat in QQ, although I think it is very convenient,” says a teacher based in Guangzhou.

Teachers also lament the quality of online education compared to physical lessons. A common refrain is the lack of interaction and direct feedback from students, which many cite as the main obstacle to long-term adoption of online tools. None of those interviewed plan to continue using the platforms once the restrictions are lifted. “The level of engagement, interaction and communication is quite low,” says a professor of Chinese literature in Shenzhen who blames Internet connection problems and students’ difficulty in grasping new methods. Xiao Feng, a student from Hubei, admits that “it took me so long to figure out how to use the platforms, and I am the best student in the class.”

As a result, most educators and students approach online tools as temporary replacements and quick fixes rather than long-term assets. “I don’t think everyone thinks it’s better to study online than to go to school,” continues Xiao Feng. “We have a long way to go with this technology. Like many of her peers, she does not plan to use online platforms after returning to school.

Companies are trying to solve these problems. The platform of EdTech expert Mr. Wei, based on the ClassIn engine, has started experimenting with a new feedback system, requiring parental signatures and audible alarms when class begins. “AI tagging also needs to be improved,” he says. “In addition, we have a lot of places in China where the internet coverage is not good enough and the connection speed is poor. We want to upgrade our videos so that it is easier to watch them in places where the internet is slow.

Chris from Beverly English says the most popular features are short unit engagements, like a one-month subscription with eight lessons or just one-minute interactive videos. Uncertain about the future, “people don’t make long commitments”.

But overall, the reluctance of teachers and students to keep the tools online when schools reopen has prompted many EdTech companies not to overemphasize the impact of the outbreak on their business. For Mr. Wei, the increase in the user base is mostly temporary, as people go online to go about their normal lives.

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Likewise, Chris views the expansion of his own platform with caution. “I wouldn’t say it’s drastic,” he advises, referring to the increased sales. “I would call this a bogus request that brought in unprepared clients who… needed advice,” as those who had never considered online education before were pitched head first. Mr. Wei also notes that the demand “hasn’t really changed.” As China separates private and public education, government pressure to adopt particular platforms has also restricted the flow of new users.

Paradoxically, large EdTech companies are eyeing the offline market. Small offline service providers are strapped for cash, and Stephanie Lee, co-founder of Zhi Fei online career counseling service, warns that “very few of those who were purely offline have been able to make a successful transition.” Classroom rents and teachers’ salaries still have to be paid despite the foreclosure, so these businesses “are unlikely to stay in business any longer,” comments his colleague James Leo. When that happens, Tomorrow Advancing Life (TAL) and New Oriental are poised to take the market by storm with their own offline businesses. “The gradual exit from small education companies means there will be more opportunities for the major players to take their place,” he predicts.

Doubt persists as to whether demand for EdTech fueled by quarantine is just a fad. Users are not sure to stick to it, and teachers have yet to embrace online platforms as long-term additions to physical lessons. Chris remains positive, however. “A lot of people didn’t even think about online education before, now they know it’s not scary at all. This is a good sign for the entire online education market.

For students, the question is less pressing. “My parents don’t have an opinion on my online lessons,” says a college student from Hubei. “They are just happy that I am busy.”

Ekaterina Kologrivaya is a sinologist graduated from the Higher School of Economics with an Masters in Asian Studies. She is currently working as an environmental assistant at PIM (Philanthropy in Motion) in Beijing and is receiving her second master’s degree at the Yenching Academy of Peking University.

Emma Shleifer graduated from King’s College London with a BA in War Studies and headed the Defense & Diplomacy Policy Center at the King’s Think Tank.. She studies Chinese foreign policy at the Yenching Academy.

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