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Weekly Trend: Why Edtech Is Hot in Asia

China fascinates and mystifies the West. The culture is deep and convoluted; the language, a subtle array of tones that are difficult for Western ears to master. Their education system is just as inscrutable: although China has prided itself in having a true meritocracy in the past, as well as a narrow emphasis on test scores, starting with the gaokao, China’s intensely difficult high school exit exam, the reports coming in tell a different story.

China’s educational opportunities are starkly divided between urban and rural areas: The rural areas barely get any competent instruction, whereas the urban areas see parents feverishly throwing cash at the problem, trying to prime their children to either excel domestically or attend school overseas—preferably in America.

Despite this disparity, as well as strong government regulations that block much of what the Internet offers the rest of the world, China is eagerly embracing startups, social media and educational technology. Both Beijing and Shanghai are bustling startup hubs; newer in the scene but very important is Shenzhen, which is being called “China’s Silicon Valley,” thanks to the dizzying growth the city has undergone in the past 10 years or so. They are creative hubs for internet ventures as well as copycat electronics.

But why is edtech in particular so huge in China right now? With a population of more than 1 billion people and a traditional culture that places a high value on education, China is a great fit for courses offered via the internet. Asia in general is a fast-growing society, and China specifically has the world’s largest population as of January 9, 2015, according to its population clock. China has possibly the largest captive K-12 audience anywhere; the amount of prospective students alone is staggering.

And that’s China alone. As a whole, Asia is a burgeoning market for educational technology as well. Asian populations are staggeringly large and growing: India is second in population to China, and Indonesia, despite its deceptively small size, boasts a population of more than 255 million people. Vietnam, another country with a growing education technology market, is in the top 20, as well as Myanmar. According to University World News, the growth in the Asian edtech industry is above 30 percent. There is also government support across Asia; countries are working on incentives, such as high-speed networks, and a larger push for placing curricula online.

A recent EdSurge article sums it up best:

According to an OECD report, of the 204 million 25-34 year olds with a tertiary education in the world by 2020, Asia will account for well over 55 percent of them, with China and India accounting for 29 percent and 12 percent of degree holders, respectively (notably, the U.S. is predicted to lag behind India at 11 percent).

Add to this the fact that MOOCs would even the playing field, allowing students from all backgrounds to receive the same educational opportunities, and the Chinese edtech boom makes sense. Long a pioneer in the field, Coursera has partnered up with Guokr, an online science bulletin board that has quickly grown to over 800,000 users, and has been able to raise $20 million to fund future MOOCs.

Maria Helena Carey

Maria Helena Carey is a freelance writer, photojournalist and blogger in Washington, D.C.