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What’s behind the explosion of online learning in China?

Online learning in China Online learning in China
Photo credit:

Benson Kua

An increasing number of Chinese students are swapping bricks-and-mortar education for online learning. But why?

A small but growing number of Chinese students are considering pursuing educational options online.

That group represents a growing interest amongst the disenchanted middle class gravitating toward alternative methods of education that are embedded in Liberal, Western ideals.

This trend corresponds to a continued tightening of ideological controls over the educational sphere.

In early 2015, China’s education minister demanded that universities shun “Western values” and prevent textbooks promoting Western values from appearing in classes.

Political indoctrination has historically been part and parcel of the Chinese curriculum and President Xi Jinping has actively publicized Marxism in higher education institutions.

It has left Chinese universities struggling to compete on a global stage when compared to the unrestrained innovation that permeates top universities around the world.

A lack of world beating Chinese universities comes, in part, due to a censorship of certain topics in classrooms.

Known as the “7 Nos”, it’s held that conversations around universal human rights aren’t allowed to be had, nor of civil society, or discussions around the advantages of separation between the judicial and executive arms of government.

It is difficult to steer clear of the impact this will have on learning environments.

It has helped contribute to the growing movement of online learning in China, with around 7 million students replacing bricks-and-mortar tuition in the 14/15 academic year with student-centric online platforms.

Enter TutorGroup

One such platform, TutorGroup, has become one of the largest providers of online learning in China. Its 3,500 teachers spread over 60 countries make it a truly global player in the field of online education.

Its rise came about after CEO, Dr. Eric Yang, gained a PhD in organic chemistry from UCLA. Returning home to Taiwan after a stint of teaching with brother and co-founder Ming Yang, the pair’s exposure to the Western educational system made them recognize that East Asian education was fundamentally flawed.

“We had a system that was very much institutional centric, and recognized a hugely under served market for both students and teachers alike” explains Dr Yang.

An area of learning that particularly caught the eye of the Yang brothers was the standard of English language learning among Chinese.

Estimates suggest an exorbitant figure of 300m people have either learnt or are learning English in China.

The classrooms in which they learn are particularly poor and the teachers themselves aren’t fluent in English. Rote memorization is the learning method of choice, even at specialist language universities.

Yang despairs that “a lot of after school classes would cram 50 or more students into a class with a teacher.”

These after school courses were particularly inconvenient for professional adults, taking place at unhelpful times alongside children, taught at a single pace, regardless of ability.

Attempting to fix the problem, TutorGroup began life as an offline school where it “shrunk the classroom size to around 4 students.” Yang notes that teachers are known as “consultants” due to their hand in problem solving and being notorious for “knowing their space, as well as being able to share contextual information around the language they are teaching.”

Despite its success, founders Eric and Ming Yang both felt they were yet to achieve their goal of removing institutional and teacher centric biases from education. Students still had to travel to a physical location to learn.

“We decided to bring in technology experts to help us bring our business model online.”

It was this step that would signal the beginning of online learning in China.

“This way, we could run 24/7 and the school could be accessed anywhere.”

Very much taking an on-demand approach to online learning in China and East Asia, TutorGroup now has over 8 million online classroom sessions.

“You just have to give 5 minutes notice before you want to join a class”

The shift to online learning in China signals something bigger

Whilst education has always been important, the shift toward online learning in China suggests a yearning amongst students for increased efficacy.

Individuals are willing to pay an increased price for uninhibited education that will ensure results. At a micro level, this can be seen with the willingness of TutorGroup students to pay for its services.

And at a macro level, the pursuit of better results can be seen in the increased numbers of Chinese students pursuing education abroad. In 2012 and 2013, 800,000 Chinese went abroad to study. This 800,000 make up more than a quarter of the 3m total students who have left China to study since the country opened up to the outside world in 1978.

By far the largest source of foreign students enrolling in higher education globally, Chinese figures are increasing year on year and strikingly few return.

A 2014 study found that of those Chinese students who gained their doctorate in America in 2006, 85% were still there in 2011.

Thus the shift toward online learning in China comes down to a number of key drivers. Namely that the quality of instruction is at times poor, with too few places available at the best universities and educational institutions.

The UK for example has prestigious ‘Russell group’ universities, as well as dozens of high-quality private and state universities, some of which are world renowned.

Another trend is a growing proportion of wealthy middle-class Chinese families who can afford to send students abroad, or are willing to pay more for services that will ensure results.

With 7 million students in China having signed up to online classes in the last educational year, what does this year have in store for online learning in China?