China’s Online Education Explosion: A Digital Response to Coronavirus

In China, the COVID-19 outbreak has forced people and businesses to adopt new technologies and design new tools. Online education is at the forefront of this development.

By Ge Jin, Strategic Design Director, BCGDV

The Chinese New Year in late January is usually the time for the Spring Migration, during which hundreds of millions of people travel from the cities where they work to where their families are. But this year, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the real migration is from the offline world to the online world.

People are having to adjust their behavior now that many offline services are unavailable. Elderly people who used to go to the wet markets every day, including my 88-year-old grandmother-in-law, are now ordering fresh produce to be delivered to their homes with the apps they’ve learned to use. Kids in elementary schools whose online time was usually strictly controlled by their parents are now taking their classes online. Farmers who used to rely on wholesalers to collect products from their villages are now opening online shops on the Chinese e-commerce site Taobao so food won’t be left to perish in the field.

Technologies that were considered cutting-edge have suddenly become a normal part of our lives. Mini-drones are flying in rural areas and on highways, giving people warnings and directions. Delivery robots from logistics companies such as and SF Express now play the important role of carrying around supplies in restricted areas, particularly in hospitals. Blockchain is used by NGOs to track the source and distribution of donated goods. More than 200 cities now require their residents to apply for a digital “health code” if they want to use public transportation or enter office buildings. This health code is supported by the two dominant internet platforms, Alibaba and Tencent, which use travel history and social relations data to estimate if someone may be carrying an infection.

Businesses reliant on their offline stores, services, and physical products are certainly struggling to build up their online presence, but businesses with strong online offerings are also realizing they are ill-prepared to respond to this sudden change of environment. Many restaurants are doing live cooking broadcasts while promoting their delivery services, many gyms are hosting virtual training sessions, and some real-estate companies have even launched e-commerce campaigns to sell million-dollar apartments with virtual reality tours.

It’s not just brick-and-mortar businesses that have been forced to change their operations. Online groceries have needed to reconfigure their supply chains to meet the sudden surge of orders. Online education, health consultation, and collaboration platforms are scrambling to service 10 times, or even 100 times, more users than ever before.

All of this is almost surreal, particularly because everything has changed in just two months. Some of these new phenomena might just disappear when the crisis is minimized, but many will stay and shape the future that all businesses must adapt to. The coronavirus crisis has forced us into such a massive social experiment that it gives us a glimpse of a near future where the online and offline worlds become even more fully integrated.

In this article, I will take a deep dive into online education, a field I have been enthusiastically exploring in the past decade, to discuss what this post-coronavirus future might mean for business builders.

The Challenge of Hundreds of Millions of New Online Students

The winter break for elementary and middle schools in China was supposed to end on February 3, 2020, but schools remain closed while the reopening keeps being postponed. Their 200 million students across the country must take their required or complimentary classes online. This also affects hundreds of millions of parents, who now have to prepare the digital tools and educational materials for their kids and make sure they are focused on their studies.

Online education has been a growing field for commercial ventures in China over the past several years. Private online education providers, despite not being able to award degrees like the traditional schools, offer online courses that help students to do better in official exams or boost specific skills, like English or coding. Acquiring users has been costly for these businesses, and in 2019, the leading ventures in this field spent more than four billion yuan on online advertisements. Today, they’ve suddenly got millions of users who are eagerly giving their courses a try.

Xueersi, a leading online education player, received close to 180,000 downloads of their apps in February, 20 times more than January. Many other online education apps also enjoyed explosive growth in this period. But this growth also brings unprecedented challenges to the online education players. They need to quickly scale up their services without losing quality. If new users have a bad experience because the network breaks down or the content is disappointing, it could easily lead to millions of bad reviews that ruin their brands. Yuanfudao, a leading online education provider, commented to the media that this might not be as good a customer acquisition opportunity as it seems. Their core offering is highly interactive, small-size classrooms with fewer than 20 students, which they don’t have the resources to allow all their new users to try.

Meanwhile, many elementary and middle schools that have never tried online classes before have started to offer them since mid-February. Fortunately, in China there is no lack of technology providers that can help these schools deliver live online classes, assign homework, and keep track of their students’ progress. One of the most popular solutions is DingTalk, an online collaboration platform owned by Alibaba that has mostly been used by companies. DingTalk is currently used by more than 20,000 schools and 12 million students and teachers. It enables teachers to send reminders to their students or monitor them, requiring that they check in virtually at specific times.

But having these digital tools is not enough; it is not easy forstudents to adapt to a new way of learning. The virtual supervision that DingTalk enables angered elementary students so much that they mobilized an online movement to bring down the rating of DingTalk in the App Store. The kids have been competing to write the funniest and most ironic one-star reviews. We see review posts like, “I love this app that brightens my world with knowledge; I would like to give it 5 stars, but I have to give it in installment, one star at a time,” or “The sound of notification, ding, is music to my ears, like the telephone ring from the horror movie, The Ring.”

The Mass Co-Creation Effort

Despite the friction in online education, the amount of activity, content, and feedback being generated by hundreds of millions of students, parents, and teachers will surely accelerate the evolution of this ecosystem.

As education moves online, replacing conventional methods, the walls of the schools are broken, and students have the potential to see their education in a broader way. The kids vs. DingTalk drama was probably the first time those elementary school students participated in a decentralized movement online. It reminds us that online education has the potential to create interactions that are more fun, open, and social than traditional learning. Online education players such as New Oriental and Xueersi have created online communities for parents, allowing them to share knowledge and stories on their common challenges. What if we build online learning communities for kids, too? The reaction to DingTalk shows that kids can inspire and motivate each other in the open online world.

In both the online and the offline world, who you are learning with can affect how well you learn. Liulishuo, an online education site focusing on English training, was one of the first to build student communities via WeChat, China’s largest social network. Liulishuo cultivated student volunteers who relished the opportunity to motivate fellow students and facilitate peer learning. These online learning communities leveraged the WeChat system to expand quickly and have the advantage of real-time, anywhere, anytime access over offline communities.

We’re also seeing another form of peer influence, as a leading education company in China started to use AI bots, disguised as human students, as participants in online classes. Their theory is that a student will become complacent if she performs better than most of her classmates, whereas she will become frustrated if she is doing worse than most of her classmates. These AI bots are there to ensure the human students are all ranked in the middle range throughout an online course. According to an insider of this education venture, in some of their 20-student classes, there are only five human students and the rest are all AI bots. Phenomena like the above indicate that online education has a rich set of tools, which are different from that of offline education, to construct a resourceful community for a student to thrive in.

AI is not just used to create artificial classmates; several online education players had started to leverage AI and data to create personalized student experiences. But there wasn’t enough data to deliver truly custom-tailored experiences.

Some offline public schools have begun experimenting with data-driven approaches to improve learning experiences. For example, over the past several years, the Chengdu №7 Middle School has pioneered the construction of “personal knowledge trees” in offline environments for students by documenting all their classes, homework, and exams. This “personal knowledge tree” proved to be an effective way to evaluate a student’s overall growth and generate a tailor-made path for development. Such offline schools have done a better job in personalizing the learning experience than the online education players because they have more data about the students, but this is changing. Now that students and teachers all over China are digitizing their work and putting it online, online players are a lot closer to offering data-driven personalization to millions of students.

Existing AI applications, such as Liulishuo’s voice recognition technology and Zuoyebang’s photo search app, which helps students find answers to test questions online, are benefiting from more digitization, which is generating more data for machine learning algorithms. As more students take online classes across subjects and document their notes, homework, and exam results on the cloud, online education players will be able to gain a more comprehensive understanding of their needs and create better solutions.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, China had a robust online education ecosystem with technology focused on digitizing content and virtual classrooms. But what we are seeing in the current explosion of online education is eLearning moving beyond replicating what is offline to creating experiences that are online-only. From elastic learning communities to data-based personalized experiences, the online learning field is at a major turning point.

As the coronavirus spreads globally, more and more countries are closing their schools as China has, and learning online becomes the only way for students in those countries to sustain their education (according to a UNECSO report, there are already 290 million students out of school as of March 4th). I hope expanding the digital infrastructure and making online education accessible to as many communities as possible becomes a political mandate globally. Meanwhile, the existing online education players should make the best of all the new traffic and data coming to them, take online education to the next level, and amplify its power of connectivity and responsiveness.

Learning from the crisis

What is happening in the field of education is also happening in other industries. The coronavirus crisis has been pushing all kinds of businesses out of their comfort zones and compelling them to develop new digital brains and muscles. In the fight with coronavirus, Chinese society is becoming smarter by employing technologies from big data to artificial intelligence to cloud computing at a massive scale.

This is accelerating the arrival of a future where all activities will be digitized and captured in the cloud. Instead of waiting for the virus to disappear, this is the time for innovators to start building something for that not-too-distant reality.

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