Screen school

With the gaokao delayed, online education brands are still busy


Students back at school in Anhui

On the last day of March China’s Ministry of Education announced that for only the second time in over 40 years the annual college entrance exams – the gaokao – would be postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Since 1979 the gaokao has been held on a fixed date. Until 2002 that was July 7 and 8, but it was moved forward by a month in 2003 so that students could avoid the summer heat.

This year’s announcement was greeted with shock simply because the exams are such an immovable fixture on the annual calendar.

“Wow, we really are living in historic times,” said one weibo user.

“I had to check today wasn’t April 1,” said another.

Mostly families were relieved—although a few parents did say they didn’t want to live through an extra month of gaokao stress, especially since having their children at home since the end of January.

One thing the outbreak’s mass closure of schools has revealed in China is the digital divide.

Families with computers, smartphones and decent WiFi have been able to continue their studies online – either via livestreaming with their regular teachers or through e-learning platforms such as Baidu’s Zuoye Bang or Yuanfudao’s various products.

For many, this has been stressful – online study can require more parental supervision, it relies on a good internet connection and there can be technical glitches, especially if the teacher isn’t tech savvy.

For people on lower incomes and those living in rural areas with poorer internet access, the process is more challenging. In March Beijing News reported that a teenage girl from Henan had killed herself because she and her brother had to share a smartphone and she couldn’t keep up with her school work.

Around the same time the Nikkei Asian Review said that supplies of iPads were running low in China because of the massive increase in online learning and the fact that Apple’s production lines were still to resume normal service after the pandemic.

Before the crisis the Chinese e-learning sector was valued at Rmb272 billion ($38.42 billion), according to the Shenzhen-based market research company Qianzhan. Another Shenzhen firm, iiMedia Research, valued the sector higher at Rmb387 billion, predicting 12% annual growth even before the outbreak of the virus.

After the closure of Chinese schools the downloads of education apps skyrocketed. Baidu’s Zuoye Bang saw an almost 700% increase in weekly active users from January to February, while Yuanfudao saw 510% growth.

Another popular app Xue’ersi reported a 600% increase in activity but that might need to be taken with a pinch of salt, given that its New York-listed parent TAL Education Group is under investigation for inflating sales data.

Meanwhile Yuanfudao announced on March 30 that it had raised $1 billion in a new round of financing led by internet conglomerate Tencent and private equity firm Hillhouse Capital. The new financing means the company is now valued at $7.8 billion, it added.

This week it also launched a free gaokao preparation programme designed to attract more people to its subscription services.

Yuanfudao isn’t the only firm to be expanding its education services. Even budget e-commerce platform Pinduoduo has released an app that helps to check maths homework. Interestingly it also secured a $1.1 billion investment in late March and two of Yuanfudao’s investors – Hillhouse Capital and Boyu Capital—are said to be participants.

Schools have started to reopen in cities across China, but in most cases only for the senior years, including the students preparing for the gaokao. That means the demand for digital lessons isn’t going to drop off overnight, as millions of children continue with their online education.

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