And Finally

Lots of homework

Virus crisis brings surge in stay-at-home study


Yu Minhong, New Oriental’s boss

In Mandarin, there is a mix of variations for the word “busy”. Slight subtleties in the ‘changing’ radical can come to mean: “hurried”, “bustling” or “engaged”. But keeping busy is the norm for many students in China – and as far as getting an education is concerned, a coronavirus is no excuse for slacking.

As thousands of schools have closed their doors, online education platforms have been frantically busy trying to adapt to the sudden dependence on web-based tuition. Keen to be seen supporting the cause, many of the top players have been offering free tuition online. VIPKID announced at the end of January that it would offer 1.5 million free courses to children aged from four to 12. Starting from February 10, “until schools are safely reopened”, these free classes will be taught live four times a week. Children in Hubei province and the offspring of medical workers are being offered priority access, the company said (see WiC378 for our first article about VIPKID’s services, which primarily connect teachers in the US with students in China via streaming video).

The industry is still relatively young, so forecasting the effect of the Wuhan virus on demand is tricky. The China Internet Network Information Center had previously predicted that online education platform users would reach 305 million in 2020, an increase from 259 million in 2019. This target now looks likely to be revised upwards.

However, before the virus hit, there was speculation that the online education sector was starting to struggle. As the paying customers for the education platforms, parents in some cities have been turned off by aggressive advertising campaigns or simply bewildered by the wide range of options. The industry is much more competitive than in the past and that led investors to drop some of the fringe players. Concern over unpredictable government edicts relating to private education spooked some venture capitalists too.

But there is nothing like necessity to change perceptions and now the sector’s services are needed more than ever.

Smaller companies offering tuition online for Chinese students from Oxbridge tutors, such as UK Boarding School Admissions, are seeing unprecedented interest.

One Cambridge-based tutor, who works for various Chinese education companies told WiC: “The demand for online tuition has soared. Not only is it ‘prime time’ for UK Independent School entry examinations, but the outbreak has meant parents are saturating their children’s time with extra tuition. One consultant messaged me to ask if I have time to teach for her friends’ company as they don’t have enough tutors to meet demand.”

The biggest brands are having to react to the coronavirus crisis in different ways. New Oriental, one of the pioneers in the sector, has also suspended its more traditional classroom-based services, for instance. That’s meant some of New Oriental’s 80,000 employees have been diverted towards online instruction instead – albeit with complaints that the company’s servers were underprepared for the resulting surge in streaming bandwidth.

Despite this, New Oriental Online’s share price increased by over 220% in the week to February 6. According to Sina Finance, that gave it a market value of $18 billion. In 2019 its revenue was $3.1 billion.

One fear over the surge of interest in the sector is inexperienced opportunists entering the market. Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Educational Sciences, warned parents not to “blindly follow online trends, become swept away by exaggerated publicity, and to seek out reputable, credible and stable online education institutions”.

But a spokeswoman for VIPKID put a more positive spin on the situation in comments to the South China Morning Post. “The influx of users will force online education institutions to polish their teaching content and technical capabilities, improving the experience and efficiency of online learning,” she said.

If that starts to happen, the market for online education services in China could grow faster than anyone had dared to forecast, even when more of the country’s schools start to reopen after the coronavirus comes under greater control.

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