The future of teaching in China is online

Chinese students learning about the weather in a school in Guangxi province. Online schools are now trying to replicate the benefits of live classes.
Chinese students learning about the weather in a school in Guangxi province. Online schools are now trying to replicate the benefits of live classes. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING • Hardly anyone bothered to learn English when Ms Wu Wenhua was growing up in 1980s China.

But now that she has an 11-year-old son, she believes knowing the language is key to opening doors. She signed Ryan up for an online service, called VIPKid, that connects Chinese pupils with American teachers for one-to-one classes.

Parents such as Ms Wu are fuelling an education boom in China that is having global repercussions.

Millions of children are pouring into classes for English, mathematics and the sciences to gain the skills they need in a knowledge economy.

Chinese parents have always prioritised academic achievement. Now, they have the means to invest in extra-curricular education, propelling a domestic market that UBS said will double to US$165 billion (S$223 billion) within five years.

Now, online start-ups are gaining ground with parents who grew up in the Internet era.

Beijing-based VIPKid has expanded to 200,000 students and just raised venture money at a valuation of more than US$1.5 billion from Sequoia Capital and Tencent Holdings.

Shanghai rival iTutorGroup has backing from Alibaba Group Holding and Qiming Venture Partners.

"Chinese parents have high expectations for their children. Everyone wants his kids to get into Tsinghua or Peking University," said Mr Edwin Chen, an analyst with UBS Securities.

In the West, early efforts at online education floundered. The technology was not good enough.

Many remain unpersuaded that digital instruction can replace the traditional classroom.

But, in China, a mix of factors has given online schools a boost.

Finding good teachers can be a challenge, especially in subjects such as English and in places beyond the biggest cities, while Internet access and mobile services have spread widely.

For the nation's education-obsessed tiger mums and dads, it is worth the risk to prepare their kids for a high-tech future.

Sceptics believe online education will probably remain a small part of the overall industry. But Curtis Johnson, an author who has championed online teaching, is convinced that global adoption is coming, owing in part to experiments in nations such as China.

"This is just as inevitable as watching movies, listening to music or reading the news online," said the co-author of the book, Disrupting Class, with Harvard University's Clayton Christensen in 2009.

Chinese parents currently pay for fewer extra-curricular classes than their Asian neighbours. Last year, about 37 per cent of kids in China received tutoring, compared with 70 per cent in places such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, according to UBS.

But it projects that ratio will hit 50 per cent in five years, during which the Chinese government expects the number of kids attending kindergarten through 12th grade to swell to almost 200 million.

Traditional tutoring companies, with brick-and-mortar classrooms, are already cashing in.

VIPKid has set itself apart by recruiting American teachers and positioning its services as similar to the education in top US schools.

Ms Cindy Mi, the start-up's 34-year-old founder, argues that teaching online allows the kind of data analysis and scientific review that will lead to fundamental improvements in education.

Many Chinese parents see advantages in learning online. For one thing, they do not have to drive their kids to a classroom across town.

For another, there are bragging rights associated with hiring an American teacher.

VIPKid's growing popularity has not gone unnoticed. Brick-and-mortar tuition providers New Oriental and TAL Education have been pouring money into online courses.

iTutorGroup, which began with adult education online, relaunched its services for kindergarten through 12th grade under the VIP Junior brand in January.

Advertisements featuring basketball star and sponsor Yao Ming are plastered all over buses in Beijing and other major Chinese cities.

iTutorGroup, which counts Goldman Sachs among its backers, was founded in 1999 and reached a valuation of more than US$1 billion in 2015.

"We are the first to have a 24/7 proprietary network for teaching online," said Mr Paul Keung, its chief financial officer. "We also don't limit you to teachers in the US. We let you connect with great native speakers all over the world."

VIPKid has set up a research institute to make online teaching more effective. Leading the effort are Mr Rob Hutter, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and Mr Bruce McCandliss, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Education.

Mr Hutter said: "We're at a moment where we can replicate the benefits of live (classes). But in addition, we can also make it better."

And while many parents like VIPKid's one-to-one teacher-student ratio, as the start-up signs up more kids, it faces a challenge in lining up enough instructors.

Ms Mi is undaunted. She said there are millions of qualified US teachers who have left the profession or are looking for extra work so shortages are not a concern.

Her company just raised US$200 million, allowing her to step up investments in marketing, engineers and research.

She ticked off all the new features it is introducing: a teacher recommendation service much like the one Amazon uses to suggest movies, a star system so parents can rate teachers and data analysis that tells parents how their kids are doing.

Ms Mi expects to sign up a million students by 2019 and said 10 million are probably not that far off.

"Our vision is to be the best K-12 education globally," she said. "Over the long term, this can go beyond anything we can imagine."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 17, 2017, with the headline The future of teaching in China is online. Subscribe