Mon, Sep 11, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Amid education boom, China’s tiger moms try virtual US tutors

Funding and interest is pouring into the virtual tutoring industry, which has found a foothold China, where tutoring is set to reach 50 percent of grade-schoolers within five years

Bloomberg News

Illustration: Yusha

Hardly anyone bothered to learn English when Wu Wenhua was growing up in 1980s China, but now that she has an 11-year-old son, Wu believes knowing the language is key to opening doors.

So Wu, 38, signed Ryan up for an online service called VIPKid that connects Chinese grade-schoolers with US teachers for one-on-one classes.

With Ryan now top of his class at school, Wu is satisfied — or at least as much as a hard-charging Beijing mother can be.

“He recently got 99 out of 100,” she said, grimacing slightly. “He does pretty well.”

Parents like Wu are fueling an education boom in China that is having global repercussions.

Millions of children are pouring into classes for English, math and the sciences to gain the skills they need in a knowledge economy.

Chinese parents have always prioritized academic achievement; now they have the means to invest in extra-curricular education, propelling a domestic market that UBS says is to double to US$165 billion within five years.

Leading players such as New Oriental Education & Technology Group and TAL Education Group have gone public in the US and have seen their shares soar.

Online start-ups are gaining ground with parents who grew up in the Internet era and see advantages in digital learning.

Beijing-based VIPKid has expanded to 200,000 students and just raised venture money at a valuation of more than US$1.5 billion from Sequoia Capital and Tencent Holdings.

Shanghai rival iTutorGroup has won backing from Alibaba Group Holding and Qiming Venture Partners in yet another proxy battle between Alibaba and Tencent, which have squared off in nearly every fast-growing tech sector.

“Chinese parents have high expectations for their children. Everyone wants their kids to get into Tsinghua or Peking University,” UBS Securities analyst Edwin Chen said. “This is creating huge demand.”

In the West, early efforts at online education floundered. The technology was not good enough and there was significant institutional resistance. Many remain unpersuaded that digital instruction can replace the traditional classroom.

However, in China, a combination of factors have given online schools a boost.

Finding good teachers can be difficult, especially in subjects like English and in places outside of big cities, while Internet access and mobile services have spread widely.

For the nation’s education-obsessed tiger moms and dads, it is worth the risk to prepare their kids for a high-tech future.

Skeptics say that online education will probably remain a small part of the overall industry, but Curtis Johnson, an author who has championed online teaching, is convinced that global adoption is coming, owing in part to experiments in nations like China.

“This is just as inevitable as watching movies or listening to music or reading the news online,” said Johnson, who coauthored the book Disrupting Class with Harvard University’s Clayton Christensen in 2009.

Chinese parents pay for fewer extra-curricular classes than their Asian neighbors.

Last year, about 37 percent of kids in China received tutoring, compared with 70 percent in places like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, according to UBS.

However, the research firm projects that the ratio is to hit 50 percent in five years, during which time the Chinese government expects the number of kids attending kindergarten through 12th grade to swell to nearly 200 million.

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