Improving technology is the foundation of online education: Hou Jianbin, CEO of Zuoyebang

China’s online education industry has witnessed robust growth over the past few years and shows no signs of slowing down. The sector had attracted a user base of 144 million by June 2017, up 22% year-on-year.

This obvious change in learning habits brings about big opportunities for online education companies, especially those focused on the K-12 sector. Compared with traditional offline schools, online classrooms have a broader student base and lower operating costs. This means easier access to high-quality courses given by reputable teachers, flexible tutoring time, and more affordable fees. Given these benefits, it’s no surprise that K-12 recorded such a quick boom among China’s education-obsessed parents and academically stressed teenagers.

Venture capitalists have also made their move to tap this prosperous market. In the first eleven months of 2017, 40 K-12 edtech startups raised a more than RMB 6 billion combined, including investments from top venture capital firms such as Sequoia China, Matrix China, IDG, ZunFund, and more.

“We believe there will be a number of billion dollar companies in the online education sector. We expect the biggest online education company coming from the K-12 sector since it’s the biggest vertical in the online education industry. There will be some big fish in a big pond.” Steven Ji, partner at Sequoia China said.

As one of the earliest and largest players in this field, Zuoyebang (作业帮, literally “homework help”) was launched in January 2014 under Baidu’s Q&A site Baidu Zhidao. The team was spun out in 2015 to build a Q&A platform dedicated to middle school and primary school students. Starting as a tool where users get answers by taking photos of their problems, Zuoyebang expanded to offer one-on-one Q&A sessions, and live streaming tutoring. As one of the most popular apps among Chinese teenagers, Zuoyebang now claims 300 million users, including students, teachers, and parents, and 60 million monthly active users.

Technology is the driving force

Due to the special nature of elementary education, traditional schooling is still the major channel where K-12 students acquire knowledge. Online education, however, is becoming complementary to mainstream school education; new technology developments are automizing the self-learning process outside of school hours. This a lot for Chinese parents who hold high hopes for their children’s academic achievements.  

Hou Jianbin, CEO of Zuoyebang (image credit: Zuoyebang)

“Our core products include home image search, homework database, one-on-one tutoring, and Zuoyebang Yike, a live broadcast of our courses. They all require high technology capabilities,” CEO of Zuoyebang, Hou Jianbin, told TechNode.

Zuoyebang allows users to search for homework answers and one-on-one help by uploading pictures of homework problems. “Every step in image search [converting images into texts, text search, and NLP] is very difficult,” Hou said. The app employs computer vision technology to read the questions from the image and an accurate search engine to help to solve the problem. ”For users, response time is crucial. The app can give users search result within 0.8 seconds,” he explained.

Homework database search is the combination of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and search technologies. “While OCR is a relatively mature technology, our competitive edge relies on our rich homework database, which requires long and consistent effort,” Hou told us.

Zuoyebang currently has 165 million homework problems in its database; this number increases by 2 million every month.

In addition to gaming and talent shows, the prevailing live streaming found its application in online education to enable educators to reach out to students who would face long commutes. It has already brought about major changes in China’s education system.

“Our live streaming tutoring service Zuoyebang Yike has two major concepts—focus on our users, based on data. We track all the user behaviors on our platform. For example, during the 1.5-hour course, we try to understand when the students are tired and not fully focused on the course, or when the students are excited and focused. We try to feed the students more important points according to their degree of focus. Zuoyebang Yike not only enables the students to better learn, it also equips teachers with statistical tools to better arrange teaching method and pace,” said Hou.

As an edtech company, Zuoyebang holds an open view towards the adoption of new technologies. “We believe all the new technologies, including AI, big data, AR, VR are tools to make the education experience better,” said Hou.

But he thinks the distinctive features of human learning determine that more time is needed to find the best approach to apply AI technology. “AI is based on our current experience. Learning, however, goes from memorization to understanding, and then application. This is not something that AI can master now. As technologies and our experience keep developing, we can see a future in which we would be able to use AI to teach,” Hou added.

Challenges to take

Despite the impressive growth in the size of the market, the online K-12 industry has been plagued by two problems: cheating and monetization.

Like many of the “digital tutor” startups, Zuoyebang’s image search function has been facing public challenges of whether they help the students to learn better or just provide a tool for students to reduce workload and cheat with easily accessible answers.

Hou Jianbin believes that they will bring more value than the negative side effects: “One thing we have to keep in mind that no such tools can be used for exams. Students with the passion to acquire knowledge will use the feature properly, but those who want to cheat will copy homework through other channels.”

“In addition, Zuoyebang is not only a homework image search tool anymore. We are using it as the entry point. More features that address the same homework tutoring problems, such as one-on-one tutoring and live streaming service, were provided as a better replacement. Moreover, the role of parents in choosing the services can’t be neglected. They have a clearer goal and are open to shifting to new means that could help their children learn more efficiently.” he added.

Edtech businesses have succeeded to meaningfully impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Hou hopes his company will have more social value and bring education equality to remote areas where teachers and educational resources are scarce.

China’s online K-12 homework help sector has recorded several top players like Zuoyebang, Yuanfudao, and 17zuoye. Despite the market opportunities, even these market leaders have yet to develop a profitable business model against intensifying competition. 

“User acquisition for online education is very difficult. We have seen user acquisition cost to be the biggest cost item in many companies. And as these companies grow bigger, their losses become greater. At the same time, it’s very hard for traditional offline education companies to come online, because the operating system is totally different, and there may be conflicts between the online and offline business lines. We’ve seen this happen to offline retailers trying to start e-commerce businesses,” said Steven Ji.

Now claiming 300 million users, Zuoyebang has certainly gained a leg up, but Hou still considers user acquisition their top focus. “Zuoyebang is still a very new company in its startup phase. Our current focus is on user base growth and expansion. We are trying out monetization models on our one-on-one tutoring and Zuoyebang Yike, the live broadcasting courses products, and have got relatively satisfactory revenues.“