Internet courses go through learning curve in China / Education market will be transformed in the next five years, with 40 percent online and 60 percent offline.

LIU WEI/LI NA for ChinaDaily.com writes:   Education market will be transformed in the next five years, with 40 percent online and 60 percent offline.

Like millions of Chinese university students, Li Hao has enrolled in all kinds of traditional tutoringclasses to sharpen his English skills during vacations. But not this summer.

Li registered for online courses to prepare for a TOEFL, or Test of English as a ForeignLanguage, exam.

“Going online means a flexible schedule, affordable prices and more options,” Li said.

Similar to a growing number of young Chinese, he is eschewing the rigid teaching style, fixedschedules and costs of bricks-and-mortar tuition in favor of massive open online courses(MOOCs).

During the past decade, soaring office rents and labor costs have challenged the traditionaleducation model. Diverse learning needs, including smaller class sizes and tailored services,have propped up the online education industry.

But then, China’s market will transform in the next three to five years, with “40 percent online and60 percent offline”, Yu Minhong, CEO of New Oriental Education & Technology Group, a listedcompany, has predicted.

Meanwhile, the government is building the Open University of China, enabling students to earnqualifications online, and the Ministry of Education is asking key universities to offer MOOCssupported by subsidies under the National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reformand Development (2010-2020).

According to the Report on the Diversification of China’s Education Industry 2014 issued byDeloitte Touche Ltd, China has seen 2.3 online education startups spring up every day in the 12months to the end of March last year. The market was worth 80 billion yuan ($12.57 billion) in2014.

Since 2012, overseas online education providers, including Coursera, Udacity and Lynda, havegained momentum in China, while domestic platforms such as Netease Open Courses,Duobei.com and SmartStudy.com have jumped on the bandwagon.

Wei Xiaoliang worked as a tutor and a course manager in New Oriental for nine years. In 2014,he created SmartStudy.com and 20 former colleagues joined his company within a month.

Li Hao was a student and keen fan of Wei’s courses in New Oriental, so he enrolled in his onlineTOEFL speaking and writing courses on SmartStudy.com.

Li now goes to SmartStudy’s O2O learning center in Beijing. “I think it’s better than facing acomputer alone at home. The teaching supervisor follows my learning schedule and guides me,”Li said.

But Wei believes online education is more than a simple online course. “When students come tothe learning center, teaching supervisors arrange the schedule and chart their learning progress.Online and offline are cohesively intertwined,” Wei said.

“It’s like going to the gym. Some are fine with self-training; others need a trainer. Some are moresocial, and can learn within a pair or group; others are more independent, so they only need theInternet access at home.”

China’s three Internet giants-Baidu Inc, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Tencent Holdings Ltd-have all made major investments in online education since 2014.

In September last year, SmartStudy.com announced that Baidu had invested $10.6 million in itsA round of financing, putting SmartStudy’s estimated value at $100 million, a record for an onlineeducation startup in China.

Alibaba has opened its own online education platform, Xue.taobao.com. Taobao students canwatch live courses or videos with their own accounts.

One of the most popular courses is a Keynote skill course taught by Xu Cen. It now has morethan 100,000 hits online.

“Online learning is really convenient, but putting videos of traditional classes on the Web iscommon and should not be called online education,” he said.

Xu majored in recording and film-making in college, and has many skills that other Internet tutorslack. His courses are like movies-with a rhythm and a storyline.

“Online courses require better presentation. Only courses with quality content, good presentationand excellent promotion are received well,” Xu said.

Unlike students in a traditional class, online pupils will stop learning at any time if they becometired of a course. Xu is proud of his course quality. A recently released guitar program sold 1,000copies on the first day.

More Chinese want to learn practical skills like cooking and car maintenance, and prefer moreflexible online learning over traditional study.

“Many laymen investors are now eyeing the education industry, but online education is quiteunlike the e-commerce of a decade ago,” Wei said. “The latter is a trade platform and the formeris a vertical field. It’s a challenge to change people’s learning habits.”

Despite the growing demand, many online schools find it hard to recruit students. One bigproblem is that online education lacks innovative or original content, leading to piracy. Xu turnedto Taobao for help to combat the piracy of his courses, but received no satisfactory answers.

The lack of tutors is also a bottleneck. Xu wants to gather as many good tutors as possible andproduce only quality courses.

Wei values teaching and research as the core of developing online education, but “better Internettechnology and product design would add color to facts and better present quality teachingmaterials”.

“The biggest difference between the online and traditional courses is the former is an interactivelearning process based on quality content, research and behavior analysis,” Wei said.

SmartStudy.com spends 30 percent of its resources on research and development. And awearable device to assist online learning could be a reality in the next two years.

“For instance, if you put on a helmet, two people in different regions can communicate. If you arein Beijing, you would see a teacher in Los Angles writing on a board,” Wei said.

“Not every Chinese person finds online education their cup of tea, but more are showingenthusiasm,” Wei added.

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