System error: How online learning is failing to fill China’s tech-skill gap

16 min read
Students study for finals in the library of Guizhou Normal University in southwestern China’s Guizhou province. (Image credit: Cassidy McDonald/TechNode)

GUIZHOU, Southwest China—Dressed in a casual black bomber jacket with her smartphone in hand, 22-year-old college student Li Manhong seems like a textbook example of a tech-savvy millennial. She uses all the most popular online platforms like WeChat and Weibo, and even those blocked in China such as YouTube and Instagram.

Li, a marketing major at Guizhou Normal University, in the provincial capital of Guiyang, is eyeing a master’s degree in psychology. To prepare, she’s taking a MOOC—massive online open course—in the subject, offered by Chinese internet giant NetEase. She’s also taking online classes to get ready for the College English Test (CET), which is a prerequisite for a bachelor’s degree in China. And, as an avid K-pop fan, Li is teaching herself Korean with the help of online language training platforms.

In many ways, Li is typical of China’s post-’90s generation: proud of their country’s breakneck economic and technological development as well as confident about their and their nation’s future. Yet while China is raising a generation of digital natives, beneath the surface many are woefully underprepared to staff the technological revolution that the government has promised. Unemployment among college graduates is high, largely because of a mismatch in skills, but also because of graduating students’ unrealistic expectations.

(Can’t load YouTube? Try watching here instead.)

Technology is also at the heart of China’s ambition to shift its economy away from traditional manufacturing to more high-value industries. So, perhaps even more importantly, it’s an area of skills and learning that is key to realizing the nation’s ambitious economic goals.

China hopes to foster innovation in artificial intelligence and autonomous driving, new energy vehicles, chipmaking, and robotics through its “Made in China 2025” initiative. The State Council, China’s cabinet, also wants the country to become a world leader in AI by 2030.

But the nation faces a serious skills shortage precisely in the sectors where its future needs it most. By 2020, there are expected to be 24 million fewer high-skilled workers—those with tertiary-level or vocational training—than the country requires, according to consultancy firm McKinsey. The opportunity cost could reach $250 billion should China not bridge the skills gap by that year, the consultancy added.

When it comes to emerging technologies, the country could face a shortfall of 4.5 million robotics engineers by 2022, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). The dearth also extends to AI talent, where China may have to deal with a shortage of 5 million AI professionals, a ministry official said.

The same is true of the country’s chipmaking sector. In 2017, China had fewer than 300,000 employees working in its integrated circuits industry. According to the MIIT, the country needs at least 400,000 more to reach its 2030 chipmaking industry growth goals.

 

Technology also offers the means to bridge the country’s skills gap by addressing persistent social and economic inequality through online education that includes MOOCs. Yet while the government has invested heavily in vocational training, the state education system is married to old methods.

The government hasn’t made the most of the game changer that is online education, remaining reliant on brick-and-mortar vocational colleges that are more accustomed to teaching traditional blue-collar trades than, for example, robotics, machine learning, or coding. Meanwhile, universities are criticized for prioritizing rote learning over innovation and focusing on theory rather than practical skills that could enhance their graduates’ employability.

A 2016 report produced by JPMorgan Chase put it bluntly, stating that in China, “labor costs are rising, supply and demand are dangerously skewed, and vocational training is unable to fill the breach fast enough.”

The paper made several policy recommendations, including establishing closer ties between educational institutions and businesses—so that schools could better grasp industries’ needs—and joint training whereby universities and enterprises could work together to identify and develop talent. It also called for similar collaboration between private enterprise and the country’s vocational schools.

In November, during a “deepening reform” conference led by President Xi Jinping, the government announced that it would support the involvement of private enterprise in vocational education to ensure a more skilled talent pool for China to stay competitive. But while policymakers have pledged to invest in remote learning, most funding still prioritizes vocational schools.

There’s evidence to suggest that the government is beginning to take the MOOC opportunity more seriously. In addition to the plan to launch 3,000 national-level quality MOOC courses by 2020, the government expects to add an additional 7,000 such courses over time. Simultaneously, it aims to build 10,000 quality MOOC courses at the provincial level.

In January, China’s education ministry said there were around 3,200 courses with more than 55 million “viewers” in the country. Wu Yan, a senior official with the education ministry, said that China “leads the world in MOOC construction,” with the largest number of online courses in the world.

However, China’s young people can’t afford to wait around for the education system to change. Many of them are looking instead to private providers of online courses in an effort to fill the gap left by public tertiary and vocational institutions.

A shot at the middle class

Students prepare for finals at the Guizhou Normal University library. (Image credit: Cassidy McDonald/TechNode)

To be sure, online learning is opening opportunities for some people in China. Thirty-four-year-old Beijing resident Li You says studying through MOOCs has helped him improve his skills and boost his earning potential. In August 2017, he started taking online courses in deep learning and AI through Udacity, a U.S.-based for-profit course provider, and eventually completed a “nanodegree.”

Li hails from northern China’s Heilongjiang province but moved to the northwestern province of Shaanxi to study engineering at a university in Xi’an. After graduation, he worked as a data analyst with global logistics company DHL. Four years later, his annual salary was RMB 300,000 (close to $44,000)—a handsome sum in a province where the average annual salary was only 13% of that in 2017.

Still, Li felt something was missing. “The data analyst job became less fulfilling for me,” Li tells TechNode. “More importantly, it offered little potential for future development.” He signed up for the Udacity courses with the belief that there was high market demand for advanced tech skills.

“Basic courses on calculus and programming were part of my college education, but my memory of these knowledge areas had become rusty,” Li says. “So, I began taking some basic courses though MOOC platforms, where courses from the world’s most reputable universities are shared online.”

Through online learning, Li was able to refresh and improve his professional skills, finally landing a job in Beijing as a data algorithm engineer for SoYoung, an online platform focused on cosmetic surgery. At RMB 400,000 per year, his new salary is a hike of 33% over his previous income.

But Li was unusually well-positioned to take advantage of MOOCs. His salary at DHL made the RMB 3,600 course affordable. (A three-month program offered by Chinese IT-focused open course platform iMOOC costs around RMB 2,200.)

Li’s command of English and the head start afforded him by his undergraduate studies in engineering meant he could select advanced offerings. Some of the courses had Chinese subtitles, but most were in English, so language skills are important, he says.

Li Xuanlin waits for a high-speed train in Tianjin. Li previously manufactured engine parts. Now, he works for a technology company. (Photo credit: Cassidy McDonald/TechNode)

Similarly, taking courses online offers a vital lifeline to some young people, offering them a way out of desperate situations. Just one year ago, Li Xuanlin—who is not related to Li You—was working grueling 13-hour shifts in an engine factory in rural Shandong province. On the factory floor, flecks of iron covered every surface, and when Li Xuanlin would stop to take a lunch break, he could taste iron in every bite. When he fell ill from exposure to that environment, he says he knew something had to change.

Li Xuanlin began taking online classes through Sanjieke, a Chinese internet-skills platform. Fortunately for Li, the investment was worthwhile. Through a classmate’s referral, he landed a job in the Tianjin office of Maimai, a Chinese platform like LinkedIn, and now leads an urban, white-collar lifestyle that he says feels a world away from a childhood spent in a farming town.

Thirst for digital knowledge

Online learning has become hugely popular in China in recent years. With gaps in the public system, the private sector has taken up the mantle of tech education, offering a growing range of choices from both Chinese and foreign players. China’s market for online learning, which includes MOOCs, is expected to be worth over RMB 540 billion by 2022, according to consulting firm iResearch—more than triple the market size in 2016.

 

The potentially lucrative industry is also attracting some of China’s biggest internet giants. Baidu boasts an online education arm Baidu Jiaoyu and student Q&A app Zuoyebang, and has also invested in online language learning company Hujiang Education Technologies. Alibaba offers courses on e-commerce and entrepreneurship via Taobao University and live-broadcasts lectures through Taobao Education. It is also a prominent backer of language learning unicorn VIPKID. Tencent launched professional online education platforms including Tencent Classroom and Tencent University and has invested in several online education platforms such as Yuantiku.

Homegrown options abound as well. NetEase was one of the first major internet companies in China to dabble in online education when it launched NetEase Open Courses in 2010. In May of 2014, NetEase and Chinese higher-education textbook publisher Higher Education Press jointly launched the China College MOOC, which provides the public with more than 6,000 MOOCs from over 700 Chinese universities and institutions. Other prominent MOOC platforms include Tsinghua University’s XuetangX and programs from institutions such as Peking University.

Udacity, which developed out of offerings at Stanford University, entered the Chinese market roughly two years ago and started offering courses and programs in Chinese. It is also working with Chinese companies to build customized courses for the market. Other international MOOC platforms such as Coursera, edX, and Khan Academy have expanded their footprint in China by partnering with local universities to disseminate their educational content, and working with local platforms. For example, NetEase Open Courses has translated a significant portion of Khan Academy’s content into Chinese and helped promote it on its platform. Similarly, Coursera teamed up with Guokr, an online tech and science education site, to localize content.

Fresh forms of online education are also flourishing. The year 2016 saw new pay-for-knowledge models take off, particularly paid audio-streaming platforms like Ximalaya FM, iGet, and Qingting FM. These platforms feature wide-ranging topics from finance and business management to technical skills development, art history, and psychology. Some platforms like Qianliao and Lizhi Weike use popular messaging app WeChat as the main channel of distribution. By 2020, the market size for pay-for-knowledge platforms is expected to reach RMB 23.5 billion. While MOOCs by major providers can run to hundreds or thousands of yuan, an audio course often only costs around RMB 10 to 20.

Wang Xiaowei, author of the forthcoming book Tech Goes Down to the Country, which explores technology and its impact in rural China, is not surprised that Chinese companies are ahead of education authorities when it comes to online learning. “The private sector is always going to move faster than government,” she says, adding that many companies might consider a shortage of skilled workers in tech a potential “pipeline” issue. To make sure that they’ll have enough future applicants with the right skills, enterprises are “probably saying, ‘Let’s go out and do this ourselves.’”

But Wang believes the government must lead the development of MOOCs in China. “It’s important to have government in there in order to have standards,” says Wang. To her it’s an issue of specific software skills versus broader tech skills. “You can teach people how to operate a piece of software, but they’ll only know how to use that specific software. If they want to develop their skills, they’ll have to pay again.”

If those abilities are taught at universities or vocational schools, educators can give learners a broader foundation in tech skills. “Leaving such training up to the private sector worries me in the context of China, as well as in the U.S.,” she says.

 

Many Guizhou college students believe online classes can propel them into better opportunities, including Li Manhong, in pink, a junior marketing student, and Zhang Youyou, in black, who studies landscape design. (Image credit: Cassidy McDonald/TechNode)

 

Some also have questioned online course quality, particularly in cutting-edge areas like deep learning. Providers in pursuit of profit are more likely to offer courses in high-demand fields, those which can offer students quick career results rather than a foundation for lifelong learning or innovation.

Tsinghua University’s XuetangX, for example, provides MOOCs to some 10 million registered users, mostly from first- and second-tier cities. Most are seeking instant gratification in the form of a pay raise, promotion, or better job opportunities, CEO Li Chao tells TechNode, so the platform offers courses on subjects like accounting and programming.

The proliferation of platforms and lack of a solid regulatory framework for the sector leaves customers vulnerable to scams or disappointment. Disgruntled students have accused online education companies of overstating the benefits of their courses. In one story reported by Shanghai-based Chinese media outlet The Paper, a former customer of Nasdaq-listed TEDU accused the company of failing to deliver on its alleged promise of numerous job opportunities and an annual earning potential of around RMB 200,000.

The student, who was not identified by his real name in the article, said he went into debt to the tune of thousands of yuan after paying tuition, while still being unable to find a job. Aptech, one of China’s oldest IT training schools, has faced similar criticisms, with former students alleging false advertising—to which the school has countered that students expected too much and didn’t work hard enough.

A student watches a video at the Guizhou Normal University library. (Image credit: Cassidy McDonald/TechNode)

Tackling the digital divide

In theory, online education should provide a much-needed solution to the much-cited digital divide, which appears alive and well in China. Getting the right skills to the right people in time will allow China to reach its goals for economic development and equity. Failure to do so could see obvious repercussions for the country’s economy and stability. The challenge, observers say, is how to stem the emergence of a new type of “left behinds”—people who have been overtaken by the relentless onslaught of technology and development.

The reality, however, is that those who already have strong educational and professional foundations, including English skills, stand to benefit the most from these new learning opportunities. For example, Udacity currently has close to 10 million users worldwide, including around 400,000 from China. But according to head of marketing and partnership Zoe Zhou, close to half of their Chinese users come from the top four metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. People with such skills and who live in more developed cities also have a greater chance of knowing where to look for new skill enhancing options in the first place.

However, even when individuals are aware of online learning opportunities, language can remain a barrier. Nancy Xu, former IDEO China designer turned founder of education consulting company Cevolution, says that there is a “big gap” between the quality of Chinese-language offerings and international ones. “It’s not systematic,” she says of most Chinese-language courses. “It’s not like Coursera where if you want to learn AI, if you want to learn machine learning, then the top scientists in the world teach you that.”

The lingua franca among software developers has long been English. Most programming languages are based in English, so it’s natural that many technology education resources are in English as well, though Chinese developers are beginning to change that.

Recently, software developers have been making more resources available in Chinese. For example, when TechNode checked the popular software development platform Github earlier this month, six of the site’s 25 weekly trending repositories were written mainly in Chinese, while the rest used English.

And in 2014, China-born developer Evan You released the popular Javascript framework Vue. The U.S.-based company has found traction in markets worldwide, including in China, as much of the framework’s documentation is written in Chinese.

Last year, NetEase launched an initiative to bring its MOOC platform to learners in living in remote mountainous areas in China. Jiang Zhongbo, general manager of NetEase’s education business unit, described the initiative as part of the company’s “Internet+” approach aimed at pushing for inclusive education.

XuetangX’s Li said the company has attempted to bring the online learning platform to rural parts of China but realized that it is difficult to pique people’s interest there. So they modified their approach by partnering with high schools and universities in central and western China, providing teachers with resources through their platform—bringing benefits of online learning back into the brick-and-mortar classroom.

 

 

Photo

Students eat near a food stand at Guizhou Normal University, a teacher's school located in one of China's poorest provinces.

Photo

Zhang Youyou, a Guizhou Normal University junior, takes online classes but says that lectures sometimes fail to keep her attention.

China could look to India for inspiration for making access more equitable. There, two public institutes partnered to create The National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NEPTEL), which offers learners courses from eight Indian science and technology universities. First conceived in 1999, as of the Spring 2019 semester NEPTEL had 290 free classes in engineering, hard sciences, and other fields. Another initiative launched two years ago via a technical partnership with Microsoft connects Indian residents with 300 free college-level courses, much of which cover professional topics. Called the SWAYAM MOOC platform, its official website states the platform’s objective is “to take the best teaching learning resources to all, including the most disadvantaged.”

Anant Agarwal, CEO of worldwide non-profit MOOC provider edX, tells TechNode that online education is key, especially with increasing penetration of mobile devices in developing countries.

“I think everyone worries that with online education, it will increase the [urban-rural] digital divide,” he says. “I think it’s very important to work hard to make sure that everybody has access to education.” Agarwal adds that, due to money and time constraints, “for a lot of people in rural areas, online might be the only way to do that.”

Elsewhere in the world, Singapore’s SkillsFuture initiative forms another notable public-private partnership. As of January 2016, all citizens aged 25 and above receive a SGD500 (around $365) credit with “periodic top-ups” in order to take pre-approved online courses from local universities as well as MOOC platforms. Singapore also offers between 50% to 90% subsidies for employers who sponsor their workers’ training.

Upskilling the heartland

Apartments in Guiyang’s city center, a 30-minute drive from the city’s college district. (Image credit: Cassidy McDonald/TechNode)

With mountainous terrain resulting in many remote villages lacking infrastructure, Guizhou province is one of China’s poorest. However, the region is rebranding itself as China’s big data capital. Guiyang now hosts China’s annual Big Data Expo and boasts partnerships with Apple’s iCloud operations.

But low-income areas are, predictably, the least developed in terms of technological infrastructure, and have the least access to educational opportunities.

Li Manhong, the Guizhou Normal University marketing major, hails from Xingyi City in the southwest corner of Guizhou. While mobile payments have become ubiquitous in the country’s bigger cities, according to Li, cash still dominates in Xingyi. Many people have mixed feelings about the role of technology in their lives.

“The internet offers people in remote or impoverished areas access to information and knowledge they may not have had in the past,” Li says. Her parents didn’t have the opportunity to undertake tertiary education, and even now only students from a few top high schools in Xingyi can get into university. Yet many are also wary of recent developments. “People of my parents’ generation see new technology more as a challenge to their old lifestyles, and more importantly, as taking jobs away from their children,” she says.

In Guiyang, tall buildings have shot up like new teeth crowning between the region’s characteristically steep and sudden peaks. The city has become a symbol of China’s tech-powered solutions to rural poverty. On certain blocks of Guiyang’s gleaming hi-tech zone, a four-year-old district located north of the city, white-collar tech employees are outnumbered by laborers at work constructing skyscrapers. Locals frequently comment on how quickly the city has developed.

Yet there are reminders that some dreams have yet to be realized, and that the path toward achieving them is not so smooth. In April, Guiyang opened the doors to “Oriental Science Fiction Valley,” China’s first virtual-reality theme park. Everything about the park is tremendous: a towering, 50-meter metallic-blue robot, a mall-sized spaceship complete with multi-story propellers, and a life-size blue airplane perched atop shining front offices. It takes nearly one hour to walk the entire circumference of the park.

On a recent morning, however, the gates are closed and the park is empty aside from a lone security guard reclining in a folding chair, staring at a video on his phone. A meter at the massive parking garage displays 8,888 open parking spots on each of the structure’s two floors.

With three metallic robot sculptures standing at ease behind him, the guard says that the park closed for renovations over a month ago. When asked when the park will reopen, he smiles and says, “unclear.”

The view from a shopping center near Guiyang’s “Oriental Science Fiction Valley,” China’s first virtual-reality theme park, which was closed for repairs. (Image credit: Cassidy McDonald/TechNode)

Despite the city’s tech push, many of the students TechNode spoke to in Guiyang had their sights set on becoming local teachers, joining the civil service, or enrolling in further study.

Unlike many of her peers, who say they would prefer to stay closer to home, Wang Qianyi wants to move to Shenzhen or maybe even Shanghai. Anywhere bigger than her childhood home of rural Bijie, Guizhou province, would be fine. When she was young, she dreamed of being a police officer. But at 1.55 meters tall, she says she’s too short for the job and so decided to switch paths. Now a third-year student at Guizhou Normal University, Wang is majoring in electronic and information engineering.

 

Wang Qianyi, 23, studies electronic and information engineering at Guizhou Normal University. (Image credit: Cassidy McDonald/TechNode)

 

It sounds impressive, but according to Wang it won’t mean anything unless she can truly understand the dense subject matter. She says she’s struggled. Already 23, she transferred to the university from a junior college and aims to graduate from her bachelor’s program after another two years.

There’s a big difference in education quality, Wang says, between rural and urban colleges, and she’s not sure her education will be enough to propel her to a big city job.

Yet while Wang is aware of online learning opportunities, she feels they are not for her. She doesn’t believe that they would seriously enhance her employability, and right now she’s focused on finishing her degree, even though she feels her studies are too theoretical—a view that many other students echoed. She knows she will face a tough job market.

“At school what we study is ultimately not enough to prepare us for outside experience,” says Wang. “Chinese universities are all like this.”

Additional reporting by Cassidy McDonald and Nicole Jao. With contributions from Zhao Runhua, Bailey Hu, Colum Murphy, and Christopher Udemans.