In recent years, the PRC government has, on the macro policy level, shown its support to the education industry and the advocacy of lifelong learning has fuelled the yearning for knowledge and skills among people. And, as mobile Internet technology continues to flourish, so does online education, an increasingly common choice for students as it allows them to learn anywhere and anytime.
Many Internet companies are drawn into the online education market with huge untapped potential and some of them have caught the eye of investors and secured continual funding. Online education has been a hot topic in the market of late, hence on the media radar. And, those providing it are working with their peers in traditional education, leveraging each other’s strengths to hasten online education development, and also on building a successful brand and exploring profit models.
Since its birth in 2014, the online education industry in China has been growing at rocket speed. According to the latest “Statistical Report on Internet Development in China” published by the China Internet Network Information Center, as in June 2017, the country had 144 million online education users, up 6.62 million or 4.8% when compared with the number at the end of 2016, and the online education utilisation rate was 19.2%, 0.4 percentage point more than six months before. Among all online education users, those relying on mobile handsets as their learning tool numbered at 120 million, 21.92 million or 22.4% more than at the end of 2016 and the utilisation rate among these users rose 2.5 percentage points to 16.6%.
There are four contributing factors to the rapid rise of the online education industry. Firstly, with the Internet gaining popularity, quality online education contents can be availed to users via different formats; secondly, unlike traditional education, online education is accessible anytime, anywhere, hence can better meet the need of users with “hard to fix” learning schedules; thirdly, students can choose to have live one-on-one or one-on-many lessons or live plus recorded lessons to suit their personal learning requirements, and fourthly, providing online education involves low labour cost and rental expenses and mass access to the programmes permits charging of lower prices.
The statistical report highlighted the fact that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is powering upgrade of the online education industry. In 2017, a number of AI-enabled education products have been launched including the “Uni Smart Learning System” of Hujiang, the “University Examination Robot” of Master Learner and the “AI English Teacher” of Liulishuo. AI technology is definitely proving its worth in the online education market and is gradually reshaping the battlefield for the industry. Currently, AI technology is used in the education industry mainly to support oral language exams, intelligent grading of test papers, adaptive learning, and also in virtual learning assistant and expert systems. In other words, the technology is adopted basically for all main functions along the industry chain supporting “teaching, learning, examination, assessment and management” undertakings.
Given that education resources are held largely by traditional education institutions in China, to operate online education requires considerable initial investment. Nonetheless, as the economy develops and with new knowledge surfacing fast, the society has an insatiable crave for talent with specialised skills, and that will see vocational education become mainstream. At the same time, to improve their competitiveness, people are taking the initiative to hone their professional skills and they can afford to pay for the courses too. Online vocational education has a distinct customer base and well-established profit model. If its providers can strengthen cooperation with business enterprises and integrates one-stop “Internet + Education + Employment” resources, they are looking at very bright prospects.
The next issue will discuss development of another online education niche – online language education.