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China: Edtech surge during COVID-19 crisis

Global media reports are sending conflicting messages as to whether tech companies are set to either suffer losses from factory shutdowns in China as the coronavirus epidemic continues or enjoy a surge in purchases as parents scramble to buy devices so their children can study online.

CoronavirusCoronavirus has caused education in China to move online. Photo: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

"Technology is often seen as cold, but in this case, we’re using it to recreate the student community"

Much of the edtech community is cautiously optimistic that the uptake of online education products in China will reach a “tipping point” that sees products retain wider market access when the virus subsides.

Classes are continuing online for the country’s 180 million students through apps and online platforms. In addition to private providers, the state has itself launched a massive “National Online Cloud Classroom”.

“The coronavirus epidemic is a crisis to our society, but also a good chance to promote and develop technology and solutions”

“The government contracted tech companies like Baidu, Huawei, and Alibaba, along with telecom providers China Telecom, China Unicom, and China Mobile, to work together to provide the cloud capacity and bandwidth,” explained the Ministry.

“The platform is now operating with 90 terabytes of bandwidth and uses over 7,000 servers. It has been built for simultaneous use by 50 million students.”

While the government’s ability to create such a platform in a short space of time is impressive, it has also had to broadcast lessons on state television to service the 40% of the country without internet and the 400 million people still using 2G or 3G networks.

“The coronavirus epidemic is a crisis to our society, but also a good chance to promote and develop technology and solutions for online learning and teaching, which is the future direction of education,” said Feng Xudong, head of Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University’s Management Information Technology and System Office.

“It will accelerate the pace of XJTLU’s massive online education as well.”

Many universities, XJTLU and Duke Kunshan among them, are now operating all of their classes online.

“These are courses that in some cases haven’t been taught before,” added Matthew Rascoff, who leads Duke University’s digital education efforts.

“Technology is often seen as cold, but in this case, we’re using it to recreate the student community, give people support and help engage them.”

People’s experiences using online education in China during the coronavirus shutdown is likely to offer a wealth of information and feedback, providing companies with invaluable data as to how to achieve wider popularity.

In 2018, the market size of China’s online education industry was valued at 230 billion yuan (£25 billion) with a market penetration rate of 10%.

Data from the last few years shows that the majority of students are now likely working from phones and tablets as opposed to desktop computers and laptops.

There have been complaints about weak signal for live video conferencing, as well as parents worrying about the effect of spending so many hours staring at a screen could have on their children’s eyesight.

Apps such as DingTalk and Cloud Class, used by schools to deliver classes remotely, have also suffered unintended consequences as a result of their sudden popularity: through online stores, students have been downvoting the apps en masse for “stealing their extended holiday”.

DingTalk itself responded by commissioning a song about the benefits of the app in which it asks everyone to rate it five stars. It currently has 2.7 on the Huawei app store and reviews have been disabled.

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