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Robert Hsiung, China CEO, EMERITUS

EMERITUS collaborates with top-ranked universities such as MIT, Columbia, Cambridge and London Business School to give working professionals who cannot enrol in full-time courses access to a more affordable top-tier education. The company’s China CEO, Robert Hsiung, spoke to The PIE about the ambitions of the business and some of the methods used to keep online learners fully engaged.


"The major competitors that we face are the thousands of smaller management training outfits that operate locally"

The PIE: For someone who’d never heard of EMERITUS, how would you describe what the company does?

RH: Our mission at EMERITUS is to enable the world to experience education opportunities available at the world’s top educational institutions. Our founders are from really creative backgrounds, we have Harvard PhDs on our subcommittee and so forth. We’ve been blessed with the opportunity to experience this education ourselves, and we’d like to share that with the world.

“For students, there’s a high opportunity cost from taking a break in their careers to invest in an offline degree”

We have two main businesses, one under the brand name Eruditus. In the Eruditus business, we work with mostly exec-ed programs to launch offline, and online blended programs for executives to upskill themselves and learn about the latest in digital transmission, digital technology, AI machine learning and so forth.

The second major business that we also run is the online business EMERITUS, which also does work in white label capacity. We work with the top institutions to launch online certificate programs.

This is mostly with exec-ed programs focused on management topics such as leadership and analytics, machine learning and other topics. In addition to these two businesses, we’re also launching bootcamps targeted at users looking to learn new skills and to switch to a new career, and online degrees for users looking to earn a degree.

The blended programs with Eruditus are targeted towards mostly CxOs, while the online programs are targeted towards managers and directors to VPs.

The PIE: I expect online degrees and learning is only going to become more and more popular – especially given the current situation with the with coronavirus outbreak.

RH: It will absolutely become more popular. First of all, offline degrees are incredibly expensive. The cost to deliver them is huge and for the students there’s also a high opportunity cost from taking a break in their careers to invest in a degree. A lot of students are realising that the price is difficult to justify as the prices have risen over the past 10 years or so by 8-10% per year!  Compare that to average inflation of 2% per year for all other goods and services.

Now with the online alternatives, it offers students the opportunity to say, ‘Okay, I don’t have to take time off work and I can get the same learning and certification for a significantly more affordable price’.

So, I think this is going to be a trend that is not going to go away. It’s only going to get bigger.

The PIE: What does your business do to keep your students engaged in online programs, because without a brick and mortar school it’s much easier to drop off the radar?

RH: There are two major elements to what we do that keeps students engaged. The first element is how you go about designing the program. We focus on designing a program that is about learning by doing and encourages interactive learning experiences.

We do not ask students to sit there to listen to one-hour-long lectures. We design our programs to really engage [students] with the content. Our videos are not longer than two or three minutes, and after each video, students may do an exercise, a quiz, or engage other students in discussion.

Most educators are used to working with captive classroom audiences where students must dedicate attention for 45-90 minute periods. As a result, as many educators move their classes online during the current COVID-19 pandemic, many do not yet have that recognition of the importance of building interactive experiences.

But students learning on their laptops, sitting in their homes have a hundred different distractions making it incredibly important to build interactive experiences adapted to shorter attention spans.

The second element we focus on, in order to maintain our students’ interest, is the peer-to-peer aspect. There is a lot that goes on in the offline classroom that creates extrinsic motivation to stay involved and engaged in that class. A simple example of this is how seeing your classmate next to you makes you more accountable. You know if I’m going to the same class as you, and if I see that you’re not there, I’m going to text you. That’s going to keep you coming to class.

“In our small online classroom, we have the opportunity to recreate many of the offline peer-to-peer dynamics”

EMERITUS employs what is referred to in the online education industry as SPOCS – Small Private Online Courses. Unlike MOOCs – massive open online courses – enrolment for SPOCs is limited, and courses are taught in a cohort model, where students have the ability to get to know and interact with other students.

That’s very difficult to do with a MOOC where you have thousands of students that don’t get to interact. With thousands of other students, you can easily disappear into the crowd and make excuses about why other students that you do not know are doing better than you.

In our small online classroom, we have the opportunity to recreate many of the offline social, peer-to-peer dynamics common in classrooms. This enables us to drive completion rates to over 80% – 10 times more than common MOOCs.

The PIE: Can you speak more about the markets – where do the students come from? I understand that you have recently launched in China.

RH: We opened our doors in China in the middle of January, unfortunately right before the coronavirus hit. But things have actually been going very well. There was a strong reception for the programs offered by our partners in China. And we’re excited to grow the business in China.

LATAM is also a big growth market for us – we have a strong team there that’s growing the business. We have teams in the Middle East, India and the US as well. Our business is a very global business, and that’s one of the key values that we bring to our partners – this global reachability to help partners grow their business around the world.

The PIE: You cover so many markets and have great ambitions. I’m just wondering if there are any direct competitors out there?

RH: There aren’t many direct competitors to what we do because of our target market. As most of our courses are developed with the executive education arms of the business schools we work with, our courses are firmly targeted at students with at least five to eight years of experience in managerial roles. The other major platforms are more targeted at individual contributors to help them master new skills to change into new jobs.

The major competitors that we face are the thousands of smaller management training outfits that operate locally and have strong local networks of enterprise clients that they serve.

In China, for example, the market for management training is a $50 billion market, but the largest firm in the market has maybe 1% of that market. We see that it is mostly dominated by small operations who have one or two speakers that can rouse a crowd and speak very eloquently about hot topics such as digital transformation or innovation. But their operations, size and reach are limited geographically.

“We’re always exploring new formats around new ways for our students to learn”

This gives us confidence that we can scale by working with top brands and using a blended online/offline format that can cut through the geographic barriers of pure offline management training outfits.

As we move into online degrees and into bootcamp programs targeted at individual contributors with less than five years of work experience who are looking to earn degrees or master new skills to switch careers, we will start competing directly with companies like Coursera and Udacity, as well as 2U and GetSmarter. These will be our competitors in the future.

The PIE: What is the ultimate ambition of the company?

RH: Our company is not restricting ourselves to just the current format that we offer. We’re always exploring new formats around new ways for our students to learn. We’re going to be continually innovating around what it means to learn online, and that will include expansion to other formats, as well as new innovations around the blend between online and offline.

Ultimately, our mission is to increase access to the top quality content, from the top quality schools to students from around the world so that they can make a difference in their lives, change organisations and change the world.

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