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Tech companies enrich early-stage education

By Ren Xiaojin | China Daily | Updated: 2018-01-16 07:26

VIPKID, a Chinese online startup engaged in English-language education for children, announces the successful D-round fundraising of $200 million on Aug 22, 2017. [Photo/China Daily]

Technology and internet-based firms are eyeing the early-age foreign language education market as more Chinese parents nurse high hopes for their kids.

Second-language learning has always been an important part of the early-stage education market in China.

Foreign brands focused on English-language learning wrested over a third of the Chinese early-stage education market in 2017, according to a Deloitte report.

"In the online early-stage education sector, digital content providers and app developers will be largely boosted by social capital, and there will be a wider variety of products in the next few years," the report said.

"Chinese parents realize that it will benefit their kids more if they start to learn English as early as possible," said Cao Wei, general manager of Firstleap Education, a subsidiary of TAL Education Group, a domestic education and technology firm.

"It has almost become a necessity for parents in first-tier cities, even lower-tier cities, to send their kids aged 1 or 2 or 3 to English learning centers, and our experience also found that such kids have incredible learning ability that adults cannot match."

Firstleap not only runs English learning centers, but also develops related apps.

Huge demand for early-age English education, and imbalance in the geographical distribution of education resources-most of the institutes are based in first-tier cities-has attracted technology and internet firms to the sector.

Startups such as VIPKID, which connects foreign teachers in North America to Chinese children online, have even evolved into unicorns with valuations of over $1 billion.

Their apps have two significant features: they make education accessible, and they make education fun.

For example, a child aged 3 or 4 can quickly learn how to use an iPad as if it were a toy, which makes it easier for them to learn English through a tablet.

"There is never enough education resource, no matter it's human resource, technology or parents' time," Cao said. "What we are doing in our business model or in technology, apart from making profit, is to aim to make education accessible for everyone."

But technology cannot solve all problems, although it has brought many opportunities to the foreign language early-education business, industry observers said.

Tao Sha, a professor with Beijing Normal University specializing in cognitive neuroscience, said almost all language learning apps focus more on skill development.

"They are very efficient and kids love them," Tao said, "but children are not a container for different skills; they need to be outside, to explore and to interact with others.

"I don't think technology can become a form of education, but it can help education become better."

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