Edtech and MOOC Times in China

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The Chinese word for MOOC is ... MOOC
The Chinese word for MOOC is ... MOOC

If you want to see the future of online education, lots of people will tell you to head out to Silicon Valley or New York City or Cambridge (either of them) or London -- or to some other ('highly developed') place that tends to be written about by the (English-speaking) press. Fair enough: You can find lots of cool stuff going on in such locations.

I tend to think that it can be even more interesting to talk with local groups and people exploring 'innovation at the edges', especially those who are trying to solve educational challenges in places outside of the 'highly developed industrialized economies' of North America and Europe, Australia and Japan. If you believe that some of the most interesting innovations emerge at the edges, talking with NGOs, start-ups and companies in places like Nairobi or Cape Town, Mumbai or Bangalore, Jakarta or Karachi, who are trying to address educational needs, contexts and challenges of a different nature and magnitude than one finds in, say, Germany or Canada or Korea, can be pretty eye-opening. Observing what is happening in 'developing countries' -- where, after all, most of the world lives -- can provide a quite different perspective on what the 'future of education' might look like. This is especially the case in places where people are not trying to port over educational applications, content and experiences developed e.g. for desktop PCs and laptops, but are rather pursuing a mobile first approach to the use of technologies in education.

If you want to get a glimpse of what the (or at least "a") future of online education might look like in much of the world, you might want to direct your gaze to consider what's happening in a place that combines attributes from, and shares challenges with, education systems in both 'highly developed' and 'less developed' countries, somewhere with a significant urban population as well as large populations in rural areas. A place, in other words, like ... China.


China is a rather big place, of course, and so telling someone to 'look to China' may not be all that helpful. While I have no idea if it is representative of what is happening in other places across the country, I'll be more specific, for the sake of argument here: If you want to see one possible future of what online education ("edtech") might look like, you could do worse than to visit one building in the Haidian district of Beijing.  The Zhongguancun area of Haidian, known as China's 'Silicon Valley', features offices for over 12,000 high tech companies (including such well known firms as Baidu, Sohu.com and Lenovo).  A few short blocks from the main gates of Peking University, the Zhongguancun MOOC Times Building contains offices for almost three dozen companies active in diverse parts of the 'online education economy', including firms creating digital educational content and apps; providing online education services (test prep and foreign language instruction are big business in China); developing tools and platforms upon which other companies can build their online education offerings. The MOOC Times Building (yes, that's really what it's called!) also houses the Mobile Internet Education Industry Alliance and two incubators for online education startups (which, for what it might be worth, look a lot like those I have visited in other parts of the world ... although one staple piece of furniture that I see at many startup incubators in other countries -- a ping pong table -- was for me curiously absent). You can also find very small startups -- and entrepreneurs considering founding their own startups -- occupying open seats at long tables in various offices.

Last week the Zhongguancun MOOC Times Building hosted a two-day event co-sponsored by the World Bank, the China Institute for Educational Finance Research (CIEFR) at Peking University and the Chuangkebang Mobile Internet Incubator that brought together a few hundred representatives from government, academia and the private sector to share perspectives and lessons -- and more than a few challenges and questions -- as a result of emerging experiences in China related to technology use in education. While the structure itself has been around for a while, it was renamed the 'MOOC Times Building' less than a year ago. The re-branding (in June) was in recognition of the current popularity that 'MOOCs' enjoy across China. While the word is the same across international borders, it means something different in the Chinese context. As Justin Reich (who participated in last week's event in Beijing, sharing insights from recent research from the HarvardX and MITx MOOC initiatives) notes in a great blog post that appeared this week on EdWeek, "In China, the acronym MOOC has become untethered from its original meaning: it still means large-scale online courses, but it also means anything related to online learning or education technology. In China, all of edtech got MOOC'd." That is not to say that 'traditional' MOOCs are not in evidence: Both edX and Coursera are very popular in China, and local equivalents are emerging as well. (I was kind of hoping that there would be a specific word for this in Chinese that I could use that going forward, and so not have to utter the unfortunate acronym 'MOOC' ever again, but alas, the Chinese just use the English word.)

MOOC timesOver the past year, the operators of the MOOC Times Building have been aggressively trying to turn it into ground zero for the online education industry that has been growing rapidly in Beijing. In common with many other industries, and despite that fact that the Internet was supposed to help bring about the 'death of distance', many Chinese edtech firms and entrepreneurs increasingly desire to be located in close proximity to each other, for a number of reasons: to network with and learn from each other; to benefit from shared investments in infrastructure and tools; to develop a critical mass that can attract potential partners, funders and employees; etc. The dynamism and excitement of many of the young online education firms I visited -- most of which are only a few years old, some only a few months! -- was clearly apparent. The variety of products and services they offer is quite impressive, and included: Online test prep services to help people prepare for professional certifications in fields such as construction, accounting and healthcare. A search engine dedicated to online learning content. Online training for car repair technicians and teachers. Software to help utilize toys as part of coding and education robotics instruction. And: A really cool set of online tools to enable teachers and students (or anyone, really) to create their own animations in support of their teaching and learning. Some of the offerings seemed quite basic to me. The building itself maintains a shared set of video production studios which its tenants can use at subsidized rates as they develop their own digital learning content. (For better or worse, video lectures are alive and well -- and apparently quite popular -- with millions of learners across China.) Other firms were pressing up against the leading edge of what I expect the market may currently bear. Who knows how many of these products and services (and companies) will still be around a few years from now, but the potential for iterative improvements, and innovation, seemed pretty clear to me. However one feels about the oft-cited Silicon Valley mantra fail fast, developments in the online education sector in China seem to be moving forward at a rapid pace.

Back when I was taking introductory Chinese language classes a few decades ago, the standard greeting I learned was, 'Have you eaten yet?' Last week in Beijing, however, by far the most common opening line I heard was, "Do you have WeChat?', referring to the massively popular mobile messaging service whose use is seemingly ubiquitous among education officials and entrepreneurs in the Chinese capital. Times, as they say, have changed!

This is a growing, and evolving, industry. As a recent round-up of financing deals for edtech companies around the world from Audrey Watters notes, "half of the top funding rounds so far this year have gone to Chinese online education companies." According to data shared at the Beijing event by an analyst from TAL Education Group (a large Chinese education company that is listed on the New York Stock Exchange), the magnitude of investment in online education companies in China is fast approaching what one sees in the United States, traditionally the largest and most 'developed' edtech market. The figures cited, which were attributed to a variety of American and Chinese industry research groups, showed that U.S edtech investments grew a heady 9% in 2014 from its 2013 levels. This growth has led more than one person to wonder if the U.S. is experiencing an 'edtech bubble'. Whether or not this is the case, this growth pales in comparison to what is happening right now in China: Investments in Chinese online education firms grew by 700% (!) over the same short period, to a total of US$1.09bn, closing in on the U.S. figure of US$1.36bn. According to TAL's research, there were a total of 692 online education companies in China in April 2014, and this figure grew to 1,018 companies in May 2015. Key areas of activity include educational content and learning applications focused at the pre-school, K-12 and vocational education segments, as well as online services related to study abroad (there is great demand for this in China) and a variety of extracurricular learning-related activities. Companies are increasingly seeking to monetize many previously free products and services, and are also taking first steps in trying to sell into public schools (a huge potential market, but one with different barriers to entry than the after-school and tutoring markets, where it is possible to sell directly to consumers). A trend to target online education products and services to younger and younger learners (and their parents) is apparent, and is leading firms to wonder whether lessons learned from serving older students are still relevant when it comes to younger learners, or if new approaches need to be explored.

Important questions around educational equity are becoming louder, given that affluent/urban students remain the primary focus of most online education firms, although there are groups beginning specifically to target their products and services to rural areas. (One notable example is the Sunshine Library Rural Digital Education Initiative, which will be the subject of an upcoming EduTech blog post.) That said, questions around online education and 'equity' take on a different flavor in China than they do in, say, the United States and many other Western countries, where some critics have argued that adoption of MOOCs may lead to a two-tiered system of education, with poor kids are resigned to taking 'inferior' online courses with thousands (or millions) of their peers, while rich kids benefit from higher quality, face-to-face 'elite' educational experiences. When I posed a related question about 'MOOCs and equity' to three prominent Chinese academics during a discussion session at last week's event in Beijing, I was told that I had things exactly backwards. MOOCs and online education are actually a force *for* greater equity in China, I was told, not less. The quality of rural education (in the west, in the northeast) is far lower than in the developed urban areas along the eastern and southern coasts of the country, and so any means to expand access for rural students to the type of educational experiences of their counterparts in the big cities is a good thing. At least that is how the argument was put to me. (For more on this topic, have a look at Justin Reich's insightful related blog post.) It is worth noting that the standard pedagogical model valued in schools across China, and by parents -- a teacher lecturing to a class --  is well suited to being digitized and delivered electronically to schools in rural areas. My point here is not to question this model, nor the belief in its effectiveness, but rather to highlight that opinions regarding the value of different approaches to 'online education' can differ dramatically, depending on where you are in the world.

As Chinese online education companies venture out of their hyper-competitive domestic market into the rest of the world, in some cases moving into developing economies where Chinese firms in other sectors and overseas developmental assistance have already made significant inroads, one should not be surprised if models, tools and approaches of online educational technology use in China find roots in other markets and education systems. The future is already here, the science fiction writer William Gibson has famously said, it's just not evenly distributed. No doubt there will be multiple 'futures' for online education, as for education in general, which emerge over time. If you're not paying close attention to what's happening in this regard in China today, however, you may be missing important clues as to what is going to happen in many other places around the world tomorrow.

You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:

Note: The image at the top of this blog post of a statue of an ox in Jiangsu, China ("The Chinese word for MOOC is ... MOOC") comes from the Wikipedian Jayrod422 via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The picture of the lobby of the MOOC Times Building comes from me and is released into the public domain.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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