China knows a thing or two about distance learning. For two decades, the country’s education ministry has used the television airwaves to broadcast agricultural lessons to more than 100 million rural students—making it the largest such program in the world. And in the early 2000s, the charitable Li Ka Shing Foundation installed satellite dishes and computers to broadcast lectures to 10,000 rural schools. Now this top-down model of online learning is being joined by a surge in new commercial and university offerings.
And it’s no longer just about reaching rural provinces. In China a rapidly rising middle class—part of a population that now totals 1.4 billion—is creating a demand for education far outpacing what traditional teachers and schools can supply. In response, Chinese startups are identifying market niches and developing entirely new products, while universities are emulating online platforms first developed in the United States.
The trend is strikingly on display in Beijing’s technology district, Zhongguancun, often called China’s Silicon Valley, where a building housing 15 education-technology startups has become known as the MOOC Times Building.
The startup community around Zhongguancun includes Hujiang, which has 80 million registered users, including three million who pay fees. Many are cramming for tests like the “gaokao,” China’s main college entrance exam. A startup called Jikexueyuancreated a platform offering tutorials on programming and Web design that has signed up more than 800,000 users. And the newest entrants are more diverse platforms such as the parental-advice site Babytree.
Chinese investment in education technologies has climbed from $137 million (in U.S. dollars) in 2013 to more than $1 billion in 2014, according to TAL Education Group, a publicly traded Chinese education firm based in Beijing.
And the startups in Zhongguancun are joined by a wide range of university and private entrants.