The Largest E-Learning Experiment in Human History
The world is quickly heading towards the largest experiment in online education in human history and perhaps a seismic shift in the ways people learn. As universities, schools, and training companies around the world close their campuses amid fears of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), they are hastily migrating programs online, engaging EdTech vendors, and embracing alternate assessments aside from in-person standardized tests. As EdTech companies around the world assess how to adapt and respond, global EdTech would do well to examine the story as it played out in China, where the first major coronavirus outbreak took place.
Without a doubt, coronavirus is a tragedy for the thousands of families who have lost loved ones and the millions facing economic hardship. Yet EdTech companies can play a unique role in preserving access to education for millions of students. They also stand to grow their revenues and user bases.
EdTech in Chna During the Coronavirus Outbreak
Before the outbreak, observers noted that China’s online education market was struggling. Customer acquisition costs were prohibitively high. Tightening regulations on the use of apps by students and the delivery of online classes created uncertainty. A “capital winter” threw into question the sustainability of many large online tutoring companies like VIPKid which involved maximizing market share at the expense of profitability.
The coronavirus outbreak has radically altered the landscape of education in China, giving many companies a new lifeline. On February 9, nearly 200 million primary and secondary students started school online in what has been called the “largest simultaneous online learning exercise in human history.” Such a massive transition will have long-lasting consequences on global education.
Following the need to socially distance students and teach remotely, many universities in Mainland China and schools in Hong Kong transitioned online quickly. China’s Ministry of Education launched a national cloud learning platform to provide learning materials for students. China roped in telecoms giants China Telecom, China Mobile, and China Unicom and technology giants Baidu, Huawei, and Alibaba to support the e-learning platform by providing 90 terabytes of bandwidth and 7,000 servers. Services like Alibab’s DingTalk, Tencent Classroom, Huawei Cloud Classroom, ClassIn, and Zoom copycat Zhumu have stepped in to fill the void. Chinese universities have been able to create or modify online courses in record time, with Zhejiang University rolling out 5,000 courses in just two weeks. Opportunities for public-private partnerships in EdTech have never been greater.
What can we infer from China’s experience with deploying EdTech amid the coronavirus outbreak? Does China’s experience suggest major opportunities and challenges for global EdTech companies in serving their home markets as the disruption of coronavirus goes global?
1. Agile Companies and Institutions Will Fair Best
The outbreak of COVID-19 has radically reshaped the conversation around ed-tech from a question of “whether online education works to asking how fast” firms can launch products. Many offline training companies must choose to either suspend operations, sustain massive losses, or hastily transition online. Online education incumbents in China have benefitted: Koolearn stock is up 83% and TAL picked up $3.2 billion in value. Blue Lotus Research Group expects a 29% increase this year in the number of Chinese K-12 students taking part in online courses. Global EdTech should take note: while incumbent online education providers are well-positioned to get more B2C customers and sign big deals with schools and universities innovative and agile companies can prosper if they can solve problems for large public education bureaus, serve unmet needs in the online training space (such as in music, physical education, or experiential learning), or provide much-needed support for at-risk students who ordinarily struggle in school and need additional support online.
Yet the upside isn’t limited to large incumbents already in the space. China’s AI giant SenseTime is now offering classes on AI and machine learning to schools around the country. Teachers are figuring out how to teach music and gym classes with custom-built Wechat mini-programs. Companies like that run offline activities like debate tournaments have figured out how to run tournaments online, and traditional summer camp companies will need to offer online alternatives for many students whose parents will feel uncomfortable with large gatherings in the summer. And online-only summer or year round programs will likely see unprecedented interest from new clients seeking online alternatives. Horizon Academic, an online program for high school students to work with professors on research projects, has seen applications for summer nearly triple since last year.
With so many newcomers to online education and such massive scale, there will be a tremendous amount of user feedback and data about use patterns. Companies seeking to serve students and schools affected by coronavirus must adapt and improve in light of feedback. Alibaba’s DingTalk has a massive school user base, but it’s unpopular with students and has been criticised for being overly intrusive, prompting so many students to give the app one star reviews that it was taken off the Apple App Store temporarily.
2. Possibility for Reinvigorating the EdTech Industry
The COVID outbreak has given many EdTech providers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to demo their products and prove to skeptical administrators, teachers, parents, and students that their products are useful and worth keeping after the outbreak is contained or a vaccine is developed. While it’s too early to tell for certain if such growth is sustainable for the long-run, it is clear the conversation around EdTech has shifted dramatically, the opportunity for sustained long-term growth is there, and that the pandemic is giving online higher education new life. Much has been written about whether EdTech is a “bubble” and challenges tech companies have in delivering good user experiences when the hype around their products peaks before their products are mature and optimized. Capital markets and hype cycles aren’t always congruent with UX optimization. The pandemic is forcing nearly every teacher and trainer to learn and adapt to new digital tools, which gives EdTech companies the chance to make good or bad impressions that will remain long after the virus is contained.
Beyond this possibility for reshaping attitudes, the virus has also likely introduced some changes to learning and school that will likely outlast the outbreak. Virtual alternatives often save money, and unused budgets from one year have a tendency to get cut in the years following. Companies, school districts, and institutions may discover that some expensive field trips can be replaced with VR experiences. Debate and Model UN clubs might not need to spend thousands on travel and hotel if there are plausible online alternatives. If international schools around the world run good online courses, we may see more blended learning models that save money and improve the quality of teaching, particularly in regions of the world that struggle to recruit qualified expatriate teachers.
There’s also the perennial question of adoption and buy-in: stories abound of schools buying expensive hardware that teachers don’t use, or issues where teachers and students feel that they don’t have the time or inclination to use all the tools in an LMS or software tool, undermining its usefulness and the quality of data and measurement. As much as 67% of educational software product licenses go unused, for example. The crisis affords schools a new chance to get students, parents, and teachers to actually use the expensive tech that schools buy. Publisher Pearson reported that global use of its online platforms increased by 400% since the outbreak.
Online education in particular has always suffered from a legitimacy gap: the perception among many academics is that a course done online is less rigorous and educational than the same course done in person. Few of the world’s top-ranked universities offer purely online degrees, and online classes are widespread at universities with mixed reputations like Liberty University. COVID changed this entirely, with Tsinghua University (often likened to the MIT of China) offering more than 4,000 classes online and universities like Stanford and Harvard migrating classes online as well.
Crucially, the crisis offers EdTech companies a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rapidly build scale because of the sheer number of public and private sector schools in the market for technological solutions for LMS upgrades, virtual classrooms, storing files, tracking student progress, promoting student wellness, managing user reviews and experiences, and digitizing traditionally offline activities.
3. New Appetites for VR/AR in Education
COVID has given many XR companies a renewed sense of relevance and attention. In March, HTC migrated one of its conferences online to a VR ecosystem, using a platform developed by Immersive VR Education. While teleconferencing platforms have seen a boom in users and interest recently, companies and schools are struggling to replicate experiences that are more social in nature or require some level of sensory immersion. And even when an experience can be delivered easily through traditional teleconferencing, VR advocates claim that running meetings in virtually immersive environments improves attentiveness by 25%. Agile XR EdTech companies have an exciting opportunity to capture some of this appetite for proven, user-friendly XR solutions to the limitations of traditional teleconferencing.
For many, a major barrier is internet speeds. VR videos are massive files. While Zoom can simply cut down video feed resolutions to accommodate lower bandwidths, grainy VR experiences are disorienting and unpleasant. The worldwide rollout of 5G is incomplete, and home wifi often isn’t up to the task of loading huge VR files quickly enough. In China, the lack of VR cameras in public schools and concerns about equality of access (both to fast internet and VR enabled devices) have limited the adoption of XR platforms as a solution to today’s challenges, but we’ve seen a limited number of XR applications in education take off as the world responds to COVID.
Many students prefer to visit campuses before they commit to attending, and many universities created virtual campus tours about a decade ago to accomodate students without the time and resources to visit campuses. These began as simple slideshows or glitchy google street view-like walkthroughs. Now, nearly every student considering the next step in their academic journey must use virtual tours due to travel limitations and campus closures. The raw tech and subjective storytelling in virtual campus tours has improved in recent years. Web-based VR means that virtual visitors don’t need pricey VR headsets. Innovative companies like Campus360, with its head office in China, use web-based VR and allow universities to share their campus tours on a central platform and offer filming services for universities that need extra help. Universities around the world have experienced renewed calls to update and modernize their campus tours as they shift from being “nice to have” to being absolutely essential.
Long before COVID, many universities had begun using XR to teach in physical classes, simulating everything from field trips to high stakes surgical procedures. In 2015, Penn State developed a VR system for its distance learning programs, and universities with these capabilities are well positioned to weather the possibility of classes in the fall of 2020 needing to be conducted remotely if there is a second wave of the virus or if containment measures are unsuccessful.
4. Shake Ups in the Teacher Recruitment Industry Could Propel Blended Learning
COVID will doubtlessly make it harder to recruit foreigners to come to China to teach. The stigma of being the first place that the virus emerged and of the sometimes draconian measures adopted to stop the spread of the virus are likely to complicate efforts to recruit teachers from abroad to come teach in China. Starting on March 28, China barred entry for nearly all foreign nationals, meaning that any foreign teacher not already in China will be unable to enter without special permission. Even before COVID, recruiting foreign teachers, particularly from the Anglophone world, was extremely competitive, prompting many headhunters to waive requirements like teaching licenses, work experience, or even a university diploma. As it becomes increasingly more challenging to recruit foriegn teachers in China over the next year, many schools and academies that insist on having international instructors will need to adopt a blended learning model, with the instructor in a different location from the students and teaching assistants.
While China is likely to experience this most acutely because of its sheer size and the challenges in recruiting teachers to come to tier 2 and 3 cities in China, we expect schools in other places with high demand for expat English teachers in East Asia and the Middle East may seriously consider adopting blended learning models to continue serving students. EdTech platforms and service providers that can source high-quality distance learning experiences are likely to benefit.
5. "Learning Anywhere, Anytime"
As the world embraces remote learning and mobile internet speeds improve with the rollout of 5G, it’s possible that COVID will accelerate a broader shift in perspective, from learning taking place in formal classroom contexts (and primarily for children and young adult) to learning being viewed as a lifelong, constant process that takes place anywhere and any time. Schools and gyms in China have begun broadcasting classes on Tiktok cousin Douyin. Apps like Duolingo that encourage users to learn for short intervals of time every day, often on the go, might proliferate. The “work day” for adults has transformed as they no longer can clock in and out of an office and the end of commuting means more free time. Perhaps the massive experiment of “work from home” triggered by COVID will give rise to “learn from home or on the go” for years to come. And as online exams are difficult to proctor, assessments in schools and universities around the world have begun to focus more on completing daily or weekly assignments. The world of English examinations was shaken up when universities like Yale and Duke announced that they would accept the Duolingo English Test as an alternative to the TOEFL and IELTS. As more institutions adopt low-stakes, high-frequency quizzes and assignments instead of one or two big exams for each class, COVID may change the way that assessment and evaluation are conducted in the future.
6. Quality Issues in Online Education
Despite the many opportunities, China’s digital educational transformation also offers cautionary tales of poor quality and lack of consensus-building with parents. In China, the transition to online learning has been met with much backlash from parents. Parents are also grappling with e-learning with concerns about the quality of the education, worrying that the learning experience in an online environment simply can’t compare with ones found in physical classrooms. Parents worry their children aren’t focusing on school work and are not engaged in their coursework.
China’s move to online learning may lead to a decline in education quality, at least in the short-term. It’s been well known that online learning environments have trouble retaining the attention of students who become bored and that university students taught via in person lectures are less likely to drop out than if they attend online courses. It’s particularly challenging for less motivated students and students who are likely to be distracted by the online environment. There are other problems too – loneliness, time zone problems for international students, and even reports of students paying firms $1.40 to attend their online classes for them. Teachers complain that they can’t give feedback or engage students in the same way that they can in physical classroom settings. There are also worries that Chinese censorship of certain educational materials may hinder online learning environments as Chinese censors have kicked teachers out of online classrooms for politics, profanity, and smoking.
7. Equity and Access
While online courses have been posed as a potential solution to widening inequality in China, they’re not a panacea. While online courses would likely overall reduce educational inequality in China by converging resources for students, there are still socioeconomic barriers to quality education that are important to recognize, namely lack of quality internet connections, equipment, and even the cost of electricity. Many parents cannot afford multiple smartphones or other internet connected devices. And some students may not even know how to use the learning software.
Some places like Guangdong are combatting this by giving poor families data packages for online learning. This is a laudable effort and an excellent resource, especially to students living in rural parts of China where educational resources have been so low that it prompted Jack Ma to award 20 million RMB to rural teachers. This has implications globally, as schools around the world now have to deal with internet inequality. As online education continues to expand, policymakers should be cognizant of how underlying inequality can negatively impact the quality of education.
8. Boundaries, Teacher Interaction, and Regulatory Concerns
In China, without the ability to do office hours or come to a teacher’s room for extra help, students often communicate with teachers over messaging and social media app Wechat. While some students appreciate the ability to get to know their teachers better, issues about appropriate student-teacher boundaries persist. Privacy issues abound: students and teachers may not want to share their photos and personal lives, and in many countries it’s illegal for teachers to communicate with students over social media since these conversations are not auditable and may veer into inappropriate topics. There are also issues relating to child protection from predatory adults and peer bullying: more online learning may mean more cyberbullying and diminishes the avenues for peers reporting inappropriate or predatory behavior by teachers. Few teachers and students have multiple phones and computers, so school-life balance becomes more challenging. Many useful messaging and file-sharing tools are not compliant with important local laws like FERPA or GDPR. Few websites are optimized and fully accessible for deaf or vision-impaired people using assistive devices to access web content. Universities often have extremely complex IT procurement processes that examine mechanisms of student data storage which are intimidating at best for many start ups.
Online education was a necessary step taken by the Chinese government as part of a series sweeping epidemic controls designed to combat the outbreak. It was born out of necessity. Yet, it is often said that “necessity is the mother of invention” and China’s mass experiment with online learning may be the start of a global revolution in online learning. China’s trial with online learning has exposed some potential equity and quality concerns, but it has also demonstrated the power of EdTech to contribute to the continued education of hundreds of millions of students. EdTech companies have never had a better opportunity to demonstrate growth, advance a social mission, and, for companies nimble enough to deliver excellent experiences, boost profits in the long term.
By David Weeks and Lawrence Zhou
Sunrise Cross Border
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