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Online tutors, courses go through learning curve

Updated: 2015-10-16 09:39
By Liu Wei and Li Na (China Daily Africa)

Education market could be transformed in next five years

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

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

Online tutors, courses go through learning curve

At least two online education startups were established every day in the 12 months running up to April last year. The market was worth 80 billion yuan last year. China Features / Xinhua

"Going online means a flexible schedule, affordable prices and more options," he says.

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

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

China's market will transform in the next three to five years, with "40 percent online and 60 percent offline", Yu Minhong, CEO of New Oriental Education & Technology Group, a listed company, has predicted.

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

According to the Report on the Diversification of China's Education Industry 2014 by Deloitte Touche Ltd, China saw 2.3 online education startups spring up every day in the 12 months running up to April last year. The market was worth 80 billion yuan ($11 billion euros) in 2014.

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

Wei Xiaoliang worked as a tutor and a course manager with New Oriental for nine years. Last year he created SmartStudy and 20 former colleagues joined his company within a month.

Li Hao was a student and keen fan of Wei's courses, so he enrolled in his online TOEFL speaking and writing courses.

Online tutors, courses go through learning curve

Li now goes to SmartStudy's learning center in Beijing. "I think it's better than facing a computer alone at home. The teaching supervisor follows my learning schedule and guides me," he says.

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

"It's like going to the gym. Some are fine with self-training; others need a trainer. Some are more social and can learn in a pair or group; others are more independent, so they only need Internet 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.

In September last year, SmartStudy announced that Baidu had invested $10.6 million in its A round of financing, valuing SmartStudy at $100 million, a record for an online education startup in China.

Alibaba has opened its own online education platform, xue.taobao.com. Taobao students can watch 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 more than 100,000 hits online.

"Online learning is really convenient, but putting videos of traditional classes on the Web is common and should not be called online education," he says.

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

"Online courses require better presentation. Only courses with quality content, good presentation and excellent promotion are received well," Xu says.

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

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

"Many laymen investors are now eyeing the education industry, but online education is quite unlike the e-commerce of a decade ago," Wei says. "The latter is a trade platform and the former is 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 big problem is that online education lacks innovative or original content, leading to piracy. Xu turned to 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 recruit as many good tutors as possible and produce only quality courses.

Wei values teaching and research as the core of developing online education, but "better Internet technology and product design would add color to facts and better present quality teaching materials".

"The biggest difference between the online and traditional courses is the former is an interactive learning process based on quality content, research and behavior analysis," he says.

SmartStudy spends 30 percent of its resources on research and development, while a wearable 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 are in Beijing, you would see a teacher in Los Angles writing on a board," Wei explains.

He adds: "Not every Chinese person finds online education their cup of tea, but more are showing enthusiasm."

( China Daily Africa Weekly 10/16/2015 page20)

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