The telltale sign that China had contained the coronavirus was when children were allowed back to school. It began out west as early as mid-March as schools in Xinjiang started opening their doors again. It was a little longer before schools in China’s wealthy coastal cities were operating again – in April, one Beijing mother whose child had been at home for almost three months noted a popular sentiment in her WeChat mums group was “if the scientists don’t hurry up and develop a vaccine, the mothers will!” Thankfully, by May, most schools across China had welcomed students back, albeit with reduced class sizes, shortened lessons, staggered arrival times and the looming presence of thermal scanners.
Although parents are clearly relieved that kids are mostly back in schools, education in China is unlikely to ever be the same again. This is evident with the closure of the once-promising Disney English, the 12-year-old chain with 25 language schools in China. “Over the past few years, we have noticed a shift in consumer preferences toward online learning experiences,” says Disney, “and this trend has been accelerated by the global pandemic as families are hesitant to resume in-person supplemental learning classes.”
The news comes as Chinese edtech giant Zuoyebang raised another $750 million at a valuation of $7.8 billion. The company has seen strong growth in its livestreaming business with full-price subscriptions rocketing more than 10-fold over the past two years. Of its 800 million registered users, 170 million are active monthly and 50 million daily. 90% of China’s nearly-200 million kindergarten-to-year-12 students have access to broadband, and with Chinese among the most digitally-smitten consumers on the planet, COVID-19 has just accelerated the inevitable adoption of online learning.
Alibaba has, of course, jumped on the bandwagon, launching a new section on Taobao called Taobao Education last week. Over the next three years, it aims to connect more than 1,000 online education providers with 100 million new students through pre-recorded and livestreamed videos, and mini programs.
Education providers in China and abroad should be paying attention to China’s shifting education market, but seemingly unrelated brands and industries should also be taking note.
China’s online learners span beyond school-aged children, and are not just seeking education in the traditional academic sense. Large numbers are wanting to learn about exercise, cosmetics, cooking, fashion, lifestyle and decorating homes. Brands would be wise to explore creative ways to weave their products into relevant educational channels through product placement, partnerships, endorsements and other means. Brands could even look to produce their own education videos/livestreams and distribute them through the established education channels to connect with their target market who are increasingly seeking out this way of learning. There’s plenty of scope to get creative, something which China Skinny can help with.
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