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Coronavirus Swiftly Reshapes Chinese Educational Industry, Jeopardizes International Schools and Small Training Centers

By Jeffrey Weiner
Coronavirus Swiftly Reshapes Chinese Educational Industry, Jeopardizes International Schools and Small Training Centers

• The future of private and international schools is uncertain
• Small training centers have had to shutter
• Large training centers and online, pre-taped formats are thriving
On March 26, the PRC announced a no-entry policy, which will further impact the significantly changed education industry, including the foreign recruiters and teachers who are part of it. Just this year, many small training centers disappeared and massive companies are hustling to pick up the slack with discounted or free online programs. The future of international schools is uncertain with recruiting on hold and foreign teachers unable to return.
In Mainland China, the educational sector represents a lucrative and fast-growing section of the economy; Deloitte estimates the value at 3 trillion Yuan (US$423 billion) for 2020. In spite of government efforts to provide no-interest loans and a respite from the state welfare tax, “A lot of educational companies disappeared with the virus,” according to Fei Guan, an educational entrepreneur based in Shenzhen. The teacher-turned-small business owner echoes the observations of many who have witnessed a seismic shift in the for-profit, private school, and international school segments of education as a result of coronavirus-related quarantines and travel restrictions.
Large educational companies have also had to scramble to adapt to the very different pedagogical world of the online classroom. A lack of tech-savvy teachers, who can translate lesson plans to an online platform, means that cash has been hemorrhaging from month-to-month programs. Nevertheless, many industry titans can weather the storm of having thousands of classrooms in their huge training centers remain dark. These after-school programs have become a staple in China’s ultra-competitive educational system and job market. They supplement courses taught at school and also teach foreign languages and prepare students for exams.
Even among the larger, more stable companies, the drying-up of regular income in the past two and a half months has led to “a few well-established companies experiencing some significant turmoil…They might go under, but there were probably already some underlying problems,” according to Brendan Allen, the Recruitment Manager for the Denver office of Teaching Nomad, an American company that specializes in placing foreign teachers abroad.
Industrial behemoths, like Jack Ma’s Alibaba Industries, have seized the opportunity. According to Hao Xu, the founder of TopTutorJob, a headhunting agency in Ningbo, just south of Shanghai, “The Alibaba platform Ding Ding has taken over. It used to be a collaborative tool for enterprises. But Alibaba upgraded this software and let all the schools, even the government, to use this app. They assessed this situation very quickly—and are using this software” in education.
Foreign language teaching platforms, which combine animations attractive to children with recorded videos of teachers, have surged during the crisis. I asked the head of one of these for-profit ventures based in Shenzhen. He wanted complete anonymity because he did not want his website’s success “stigmatized by the Coronavirus.”
Unwilling to say they were thriving during the quarantine, he admitted, “At least this virus gives a chance for everybody to get to know the online education.” When asked if he was of the opinion that it would change parents’ willingness to buy online lessons in the future, he responded simply, “Yes, it will.” One of his teachers wrote to me on WeChat, that there has been a “crazy amount of usage” since the epidemic began.
Can teachers and small training centers quickly adapt this specialized technology, or will the educational industry be drastically changed for good? “Teachers can’t record interactive programs,” the Shenzhen language application executive countered. For many small training centers the situation has been dire. Xu admits, small training centers “just lose students, but I think it’s a good time to pick up online training techniques.”
Aaron Thompson, a curriculum developer at Amerlish, an afterschool language program with two locations in Beijing, explained that before the epidemic all of their teaching was offline. The extent of their use of technology was “quick WeChat videos,” which were “pretty informal.”
With the date of return of their teachers perhaps months away, they have initiated efforts to do online teaching: “We have scripts that we are working on” with ideas, such as a live recording of a day at the farm or the zoo. With stay-at-home orders in the US, “those ideas might be halted for now.”
Even the small training centers, whose cash flow permitted them to stay in business, may have lost their students to online education. Since the boom of afterschool programs, enrollments have come mainly from word-of-mouth, “mother-to-mother” recommendations. But in the new circumstances, large companies rely on more conventional advertising, offering free classes, which may be knocking out smaller ones.
Guan explains, “It’s easy to form a habit in twenty-eight days. If it’s so easy to get the online courses and it is cheaper than offline, parents will choose them.” Acknowledging that large organizations will have an easier time creating online programs and marketing them through “famous stars to do the advertising,” Guan thought that small training centers may nevertheless still have a fighting chance if they are able to adapt.
Small businesses, like Guan’s English One Global Culture Exchange, need to develop unique programs not offered by large companies and rely on promoting “very good teachers.” They can develop niche programs in international education that are outside the purview of large companies.
On the bright side, Guan believes that the quarantine has had a leveling effect, offering more opportunities to poor students with free classes from online educators. It also holds the potential to open the world outside China through online opportunities: “This quarantine enabled us to make the world closer.”
The shift to online education means more than just learning how to use new technology to create a “virtual platform.” It requires creating new ways of engaging students and often developing curricula from scratch that will work online. One teacher at an industry giant, who asked to be anonymous, admitted, “I really hate it… You don’t know if they understand. Most of my audience is not really interested. They just want to have a conversation with each other.”
There is an inherent difficulty in using an interactive platform where students can talk to each other and to the teacher. Students who are required to log in to an online platform can easily “disappear” by turning off the video or sound. Unlike in a classroom, it is very hard for a teacher to assess whether students are interested. And it makes it hard for teachers to animate the class using movement or any of the theatrical tricks that primary and middle school teachers rely on to keep younger students engaged.
As a result, at schools like Shanghai High School International Division “only the high schools are teaching live” through online platforms, according to Jonathan Roberts, the Senior High School Liaison between the administration and the foreign faculty. “Zoom became the #1 game in town overnight,” Roberts added. However, primary and middle schools have uploaded materials for students during the quarantine, rather than conducting live sessions.
Roberts explained that discussion boards for his AP English classes became more important to his teaching, given the difficulty of getting students to engage in discussion with each other in a Zoom group. In these forums, students can post comments and respond to each other in a virtual “conversation.” When it comes to writing timed essays and other assignments, Roberts did not notice more plagiarism in this virtual environment, and everything went “shockingly smooth.” However, “You don’t get that same feel from peering in on groups” and he struggled with “gauging the temperature of the classroom.”
I asked Roberts whether his school might seize the moment to create courses for students who do not have the opportunity to study at an elite international school. “Not right now,” he said. “But once the dust settles, online education could be much more important.” A former VP at Beijing Concord College of Sino-Canada added that private schools were generally just implementing the government program, rather than innovating new online programs.
At the moment English-language education, a vast and profitable segment of online education, is dominated by companies focused mainly on slick design and advertising. I analyzed some of the materials of arguably the most successful Chinese English language programs. VIP KID’s recruiting materials for teachers contained ten grammatical mistakes and typos. New Oriental’s Bling ABC seemed to have no pedagogical rationale for some of their exercises, for example, teaching the colors of the rainbow not by referencing the normal color of an object—a blue sky—but applying different colors to the same series of objects. Native speakers and educators are seldom involved in producing the materials, but only acting for the videos.
Some prestigious international high schools see this as an opportunity to test the mettle of their teachers and expand opportunities in the future for students. Frances Zhang, Assistant to the President at WLSA Shanghai Academy, oversees the mission of the school to provide access to the finest international education, regardless of financial background. The quarantine represented “a crisis to a certain extent, but I want to try and turn it into an opportunity…to push teachers to think. It is more of a challenge for teachers, rather than students.”
Overseen by Tony Little, former Head Master at Eton College, WLSA Shanghai Academy was already prepared with workshops and training for online training, making the transition easier. Rather than simply transferring classes as they were previously taught, they adapted to the new context by shortening lectures, including breaks for movement and exercises with the goal of “improve studying efficiency.”
Zhang conceded, “It is very challenging, especially if you have a big class” and “some of the students are definitely doing the other stuff, like web browsing.” One of the challenges of online teaching is assessing whether these techniques are impacting students: “Rather than focusing just on online teaching, we are moving to online assessment.”
Still, some international schools face the possibility of closing their doors, according to Teaching Nomad’s Head of Recruiting, who confides, “We are hearing of schools closing. It has been an unprecedented burden on schools.” Coupled with travel restrictions and closed borders across the world, the no-entry policy for foreigners promises to further challenge international and private schools. Many current teachers are still out of the country, and new teacher recruiting is effectively at a standstill.
Zoe Sun at TopTutorJob predicted that the policy will result “in a huge reliance on online courses in the next few months or even into the new school year.” Hao Xu, the head of the same head hunting agency, believed that if international schools must resort to online teaching in the autumn, they will likely lose students to public schools: “…if they are still doing online teaching, then I would say they are going to be a mess.” This will mean fewer opportunities for students to study subjects and ideas left out of the government’s standard curriculum. During the quarantine, the government has run an online program for public schools teaching Chinese culture and values.
The Coronavirus epidemic has changed the education industry in China, strengthening the hand of large online education companies and shifting students to online platforms. It remains to be seen whether elite high schools will use these platforms for outreach to lower-income students and those in provincial cities. Brendan Allen predicted, “I don’t see online teaching replacing offline teaching.”
If international schools and training centers do not master online teaching, students may lose one of their most important connections to the world outside China through international education.
Jeffrey Weiner has taught for years at the University of California. In the last three years, he has consulted with international training centers and schools to develop programs in the humanities. author website

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04/15/2020 - Jo
I have been teaching online since March. It's a different ballgame to teaching face to face. The planning and teaching hours to say the least is trauma inducing. With all the well meaning free teaching resources that has been flooding my email I do get overwhelmed.
This is a platform that requires a lot from the students as well. Giving assignments works for those who can self manage. But the one's who need a helping hand does get lost in all this experiences. Even students who used to do well in class struggle because it's just not the learning style that works for them, On the other hand those who have great support at home thrives in this platform.
Let's not forget connectivity as well. As teachers you can plan and develop a lesson on an app that at the end of the day won't work for students... and you know what I mean by that.
I"m drinking lots of coffee to cope with it.
04/13/2020 - videssos
As a teacher who taught through video conferencing in my experience for most students the platform is simply not as effective as having a teacher in the room with students. Only the top achieving students seemed to be unaffected (as usual) The approach was abandoned after around four years.
However I realize this is only my experience and I can’t compare rural schools in Canada to private international schools in China.
One of the biggest hurdles was the limits of technology at the time, (2015) and perhaps new developments in this area would mitigate many of the problems.
04/10/2020 - Mark
This is a very insightful and well written piece of high quality journalism. I am pleased to see this article in TIE. It has been very helpful. I hope that you will continue with pieces like this until international schools and their providers are back to "normal" again.
Thank you,
Mark Webber
Webber's Ed - Teacher Talent
04/09/2020 - Jame
I am educator who taught math and science for many years. Mostly offline (face-to-face). Just recently due to Covid-19 I started teaching online though I am familiar with some platform when I teach offline.

In my online teaching, I was more overwhelmed and to be honest with anyone, I hate online teaching at it makes me more busier than every before. And the other cons is that it is not good for the health of a person to sit for hours on the screen not to mention the effect this have physically both for teachers and students. I think it will be a mistake if some parents chose online education than face-to-face.

I also tried several times taking online courses for my masters degree or even for short one course. Simply, online learning is not for me as it needs high level of discipline while one is on the internet which makes one to search unlimited resources of information that eats one's time.

Personally, I like face-to-face engagement for learning or teaching as online learning is passive or remote as compared to live classroom learning. These are just my own personal experiences and obviously, I do not speak for others.