The Growing Market for E-Learning in China

In a country obsessed both with children’s education and the development of the Internet, educators say that e-learning in China has significant potential, with an overall training market worth as much as RMB300 billion [US$48.3 billion], a large part raised by e-learning.

Average expenditure by Chinese urban residents on their children’s education has been climbing steeply, from RMB1,000 in 2000 to average RMB2,500 today. Wealthier Chinese families spend thousands to send their children abroad, preferably to prestigious universities.

There are signs, however, that a sea change is coming in Chinese education with the development of the Internet and e-learning, giving households an opportunity to steer their children into online learning and training solutions at far less cost. From 2004 to 2012, online degree education quadrupled in China, with the overall market reaching RMB64.6 billion (US$10.45 billion), with 1.27 million new students registering for professional e-learning courses, according to the Marketing China website.

“There is a long history of private education companies in China,” says M. Jean at Global Exam, a company that offers online training for The Test of English for International Communication or TOEIC, an English language test designed specifically to measure the everyday English skills of people working in an international environment. and Test of English as a Foreign Language or TOEFL, a standardized test of English language proficiency for non-native English language speakers.

“For years, the business related to students’ training for examinations via traditional centers grew significantly,” Jean said. “Nowadays, online platforms are the one benefitting from this trend.”

Online education has taken root slowly in China, even if the country has the world’s largest online population. Traditional companies have never truly developed an online presence for their classes or training and now fully-online platforms dominate the market. These specialized companies also benefit from revived interest of investors on the e-learning market in China. Since the industry began to boom in the USA in 2011, at least 10 Chinese E-learning companies have found angel investors.

As with anything in China, there is the danger that e-learning will run into the always-present Great Firewall, which censors anything related to democracy, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, criticism of the Maoist period, the Falun Gong movement, ethnic independence movements, corruption, police brutality, anarchism, the steep divide between rich and poor, food safety and other issues. Literature not deemed in line with Communist thought is also censored, making any majors in political science, history, literature and related issues problematical.

Nonetheless, “For the Chinese, e-learning mainly goes with online training and practice”, Jean added. “While training and education in China have always been associated with a strict and iterative learning process, the e-learning market built itself around this trend. The specialized platforms for exams practice and training are thus preferred to websites offering instructive and interactive contents.”

For instance, he said, “a Chinese student will especially enjoy a training platform of TOEIC exam which will allow him to learn by heart and to know the exam proceedings rather than a website that will contribute to the improvement of his English level to then, take the exam. They are more pragmatic than European or American students.”

Indeed, they are more pragmatic in their approach of learning as well. “Chinese students like to control the way they practice and learn,” Jean said. “Online learning allows them to study anywhere, at any time. They like this relative freedom, after being fully controlled all over their previous study experiences. They can practice in the subway, learn a new lesson in their bed, listen to an audio record during their dinner. No matter how they are committed to this learning, they feel like they optimize their time.”

Andre Thibaud works with Daxue Consulting in China.