Forget about cram schools and gaokao (高考 or “college entrance examination” in English), China is seeing a surge of distance learning and edtech unicorns funded by the government.
Chinese government invested a record 1.07 billion USD in edtech startups in 2015 alone, and the investment in the quality and online education is on the rise.
Aside from the funding, China is also attracting its tech-savvy brains overseas back home, providing them with local training. Chinese edtech is gradually focusing on the new STEM education (i.e. programming, electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, and innovation classes), project-based learning, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) for its K-12 programs.
The OECD predicts that by 2020, 37 percent of STEM major will come from China that things are no longer “Made in China” but “Engineered in China“.
And in the middle of the education revolution stands Haidian District, Beijing.
As the saying goes, “中国教育看北京，北京教育看海淀” (zhongguo jiaoyu kan Beijing, beijing jiaoyu kan haidian” or “China’s education centers around Beijing, Beijing’s education centers around Haidian district” in English). Zhongguancun in Haidian District is the Silicon Valley of China, where most eduTech unicorns are located.
Haidian district is also where the China’s top prestigious universities are located at including schools such as Peking University (PKU), Tsinghua University (THU), and Renmin University.
PKU- and THU-associated elementary schools and middle schools directly benefit from their environment. These K-12 schools are among the first schools to adopt school project-learning programs launched by many edtech startups in the area.
Zhongguancun No. 3 school is one example of edtech transformation happening in China. The school revamped its environment by eliminating traditional “classrooms” as they normally have in K-12. Instead, they created more interactive meeting spaces where children can build teamworking and digital skills.
It is easy to assume such prestigious education is only open to the privilege. However, a significant percent of student population come from migrant families as well as the upper class in Haidian area creating equal opportunity for students.
Sophia Su, the founder of Genius Lab, is one change-maker in Chinese education. Founded in 2013, she and her company have been providing future-oriented online and offline courses to local public schools as after school programs.
“We offer STEM courses including 3d printing classes, reverse engineering courses, science experiment courses to schools. We also have four offline centers in Beijing and three other in China,” she says.
For instance, 课后330 project (kehou 330, or literally “after school 330” in English) offers opportunities for students to take technology and computer science related courses that students wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to in traditional education system. The project partners with local schools as an after-school program, allowing students to sign up for courses outside of traditional subjects.
Su admits, however, the new education system aims towards K-12 students as opposed to higher education. Most Chinese secondary school students are obliged to take gaokao, where students spend years cramming for it. For these students, learning additional skills based on their personal interests is a luxury.
Another edtech startup called Creatica Lab also strives to push alternative education in China. The company believes students’ performance in school does not necessarily reflect students’ ability to succeed in the future. Creatica Lab, co-founded by Molly Wang and Joanna Wei, offers workshops and project-based classes where students can learn by doing.
“I have seen some of the most creative kids during our workshops,” Jonathan Nylander, CTO of Creatica Lab, shares his excitement. A former game developer, Jonathan confesses he made a transition from game industry to education technology industry after he realized he was helping people waste their time on the subway playing games.
“Because of the internet, there is too much knowledge to learn out there. That’s why it is imperative for students to know what they are really interested in and to choose only the necessary skills related to themselves. We are a huge advocate of self-directed learning, in that sense,” he says.
Molly Wang, CEO and co-founder of Creatica Lab, grew up going down the “elite path” in China.
“I have been through the traditional route myself, where you have a regular routine set up or you,” she says, “But I felt like my talent wasn’t recognized and my possibilities restricted. Students who fail to maintain good grades in this (traditional) education system, they still remain in the system. But they don’t seem to realize those who don’t fit into the system can still do better.”
So far 99% of students follow the traditional educational route according to Evangeline Zhang, a course director at Creatica Lab. But the team prides themselves in opening more options to these students by constantly working against the status quo.
“We can’t convince students to drop out of school to pursue a completely different and uncertain route,” Zhang says. “But we are interested in improving students overall learning by ‘adding’ values to the traditional educational system, not by ‘replacing.’ “