Logging on to learning

By Li Ying Source:Global Times Published: 2014-4-10 18:23:01

A student reviews the curriculum of an online IELTS course. Chinese Internet companies have invested heavily in online education in recent years, but critics argue digital learning should supplement rather than replace traditional classroom studies. Photo: Li Hao/GT


Each week more than hundreds of students from across China wait for Yang Tao to log on to his computer. The 30-year-old puts on his headset and turns on his camera, but not to chat with clients, family or friends. Over the two-and-a-half hours, he will deliver a lecture for the online course Writing for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) streamed on YY, a Nasdaq-listed social media platform. The website provides courses that prepare students for standardized English exams that serve as a gateway to studying abroad.

Dubbed the "IELTS young general," Yang is a language training pioneer who recently expanded into online education.  

Over the past year, domestic Internet giants have invested heavily in online education. Baidu, Tencent, Sina and Alibaba are among the heavyweights that have their own online education portals. The trend isn't limited to China either, with Google and Amazon also climbing aboard the e-learning bandwagon last year.   

Between January and August in 2013, 23 Chinese online education startups sought investment, according to a report by IT industry research firm Itjuzi. Their courses cover language training, early age and K-12 education, and career and skills training.

Online education in China first emerged in 2005, but struggled to catch on with many Net users. Fast-forward nearly a decade and the sector has grown exponentially, leading analysts to predict the boom could redefine how we learn in the 21st century.

But not everyone is sold on the concept, with some experts citing concerns over the lack of teacher-student interaction in online education that enriches the learning experience.

Innovative learning

Yang gave his first lecture in 2005 to more than 300 students at a warehouse in Haidian district in west Beijing. As a fresh English graduate from Shanxi University, he was eyeing his break in the language training sector.

At the time many Chinese English teachers aspired to be like Luo Yonghao, then a maverick teacher with New Oriental Education and Technology Group who today is an online celebrity. "Chalk and blackboard were our teaching tools, and as teachers we would clean blackboards ourselves. Usually, the first three rows of seats were empty because they were so dusty," Yang recalled of his early days as a teacher.

Since then, much has changed in classrooms. Classes are smaller, curriculums are more engaging and projectors that beam Microsoft PowerPoint presentations have replaced dusty blackboards.

Yang began producing online lessons for Beijing-based Global Education in 2008, but he knew their appeal was limited. "The online lessons were usually an hour long, and only scratched the surface of topics. Frankly, they were boring," said Yang.

But now online courses are big business, with lessons delving deeper into their curriculum and including interactive teaching aids to enrich students' learning experience. Yang takes his role seriously too, spending four days preparing each lesson for students who pay 690 yuan ($111) per course. They access their streamed online lectures after entering their username and password.

YY is preparing to launch free courses on its online education portal 100.com, which was set up in February and is currently registering enrollments. Around 20,000 students have registered with Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and IELTS courses, which kick off on April 22.

In the coming two years, YY plans to spend more than 1 billion yuan in developing its online education portal.

Chinese Internet companies have made a renewed push to popularize online education, but hurdles remain in their path of development. Photo: IC


Headhunting top teachers

Yang is one of many teachers who previously worked for language training centers before being recruited by Internet companies to head their online courses. Li Xueling, YY's CEO, said more teachers are discovering they can earn more in online education than at conventional schools.

"A school or university teacher's salary accounts for 30 to 35 percent of total tuition revenue due to overheads, such as rent and classroom maintenance. YY allows its teachers to get the largest portion of profits … as high as 100 percent," Li was quoted as saying in the March edition of China Entrepreneur.

Launched in October 2013, Alibaba's online education portal Taobao Classmates has also set ambitious goals by inviting teachers and education agencies to head their courses.

"More than 150 education agencies, including career training providers Sunland Career and umiwi.com, and language training centers, such as hjclass.com, have set up online classrooms with Taobao," said Chu Jia, a publicity officer for Alibaba.

In a bid to stand out from its competitors, Taobao Classmates has a rating system to help users choose courses based on other students' feedback and interactive learning methods, such as allowing students to type comments visible to teachers and other students during lessons.

Learning from UGC 

China's largest video-sharing website Youku has also muscled in on the online education market, but unlike YY or Taobao Classmates it focuses on promoting grass-roots teachers whose recruitment doesn't hinge on big salaries.

Youku users can access a variety of educational resources ranging from open classes taught at Ivy League universities to classes taught by regular people in their homes about traditional Chinese culture. There are also videos uploaded by Net users covering different areas of expertise, including tips on language learning and various hobbies. "The advantage of Youku in online education is our user-generated content (UGC). It provides a platform for all Net users hoping to share their knowledge," said Wang Yan, director of Youku's education, sports and documentary channels.

Aside from bringing together Net users hungry for knowledge, Youku has also united talented teachers. Yuan Tengfei, a history teacher who lectures about the Great Chinese Famine (1959-61) and Cultural Revolution (1966-76), shot to fame in 2008 after videos of his lessons featuring his humorous yet insightful narratives went viral on Youku.

Wu Wei, 29, who teaches photography at Tsinghua University's Shenzhen campus, also became a minor celebrity in 2009 after a video of a lecture he gave on portrait photography was uploaded by a student to Youku.

"It surprised me a lot, and reflects the fact that China has few good photography teachers," said Wu.

In 2012, Wu spent about 120,000 yuan producing a series of lectures on photography that were presented in a talk show format on Youku. He continues to get plenty of encouraging feedback from viewers nationwide.

"UGC is scattered and unsystematic. It doesn't provide a systematic learning process for users. It is like an encyclopedia," said Wang. Wang points out that Youku is also engaged in developing professional-generated content, which has greater potential for revenue driven by advertising.

Under Youku's agreement with users, individuals who upload videos can share in up to 30 percent of profits generated by advertising revenue based on view quotas. 

Alienation in digital classrooms

Online education might be cheaper and more convenient than conventional learning, but Yang said as a teacher it can be a lonely experience.

"It is like a one-way transmission void of interaction with students, who I wish I could connect with face to face," said Yang, who also teaches four lessons per week at a language training center in Guomao in Beijing's CBD.

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, is also skeptical about online education and its long-term effects on the industry.

"Education isn't something you can add to your online shopping cart," said Xiong. "It should be separate from the realm of entertainment videos online. The process of learning is grueling and not like paying for a movie that makes you happy." 

Online education has boosted learning equality by breaking down barriers, but Xiong insists it should only be a supplement to traditional learning methods rather than a replacement.

"Online learning can never fulfill all the purposes of education, which is about more than just learning new knowledge. It also about the communication and interaction among teachers and students," he said.

Yang shares a similar concern that the current online education boom could fizzle out like the one China experienced nearly a decade ago.

"A lot of executives at Internet companies know little about education. I believe online education has a future, but there needs to be real educators at its helm to spearhead its innovation," he said.

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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