Blog Series #034: Education in the Time of COVID-19 – Kobakhidze
By CEID Blogger, on 26 June 2020
The Rapid Growth of Private Tutoring during the Pandemic: What of Public Education?
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have reinforced the role of and intensify the dependence upon private providers in education. In the context of a global education emergency, the online tutoring industry no longer supplements or complements mainstream education, but in some instances replaces it to a significant degree. From the very early days of the pandemic, many online education companies have quickly jumped into the process and filled the gap left by mainstream schools. While some of its dimensions have brought swift positive impacts, such a dynamic may further undermine trust in public education and decrease its role in the long run. The risks of unregulated growth of online tutoring and its involvement in students’ daily lives should be identified and observed to better inform parents, scholars and policymakers.
Parents around the world are anxious about the learning loss of their children due to the extended closure of schools. Faced with increased demands from home schooling, parents fear their children will be overtaken by those whose children have better online learning opportunities. In such competitive educational landscapes, the private tutoring industry emerged as a leading sector of online education, offering ready-made solutions to closed schools. In many respects, tutoring was always present; the pandemic simply created an opportunity for it to thrive. Education companies quickly advertised their role as “transformers of student learning experiences”and “post-pandemic problem solvers and saviours”.
In general, public education has reacted slowly to the pandemic compared to an almost instantaneous reaction from the online tutoring market. While governments around the world have been using all sorts of means to deliver education to the most disadvantaged groups of students, including traditional radio and television (see UNESCO’s recent report on using low-tech solutions), Edtech companies have been using Artificial Intelligence-enabled education platforms. In China and South Korea, tutoring companies have been using virtual and augmented reality technologies to enhance students’ learning. Personalisation, adaptive learning and gamification change the way students learn, and create stark contrasts to the traditional mode of learning. Capacities, resources and priorities of the governments may not match those of the private sector. Such sharp differences in resources may contribute to portraying public education as retrograde.
Asia has been an especially attractive region for education businesses in recent decades. The reasons include growing household incomes, the global migration of skilled labour, and the increases in competition in the education and labour markets. A business consulting firm, Frost & Sullivan, reported that, out of China’s 463 billion RMB (~ £53 billion) value of online education, tutoring business represented only 6.5 % in 2018. The firm projects that its share may jump to 35.7% by 2023. Three big providers of online education – TAL, Zuoyebang and Yuanfundao – reported more than 20 million new users in March. These three large enterprises abandoned aggressive marketing simply because they no longer need it as a result of massive growth in demand. Together with online tutoring companies, providers of online platforms, such as ClassIn, Zhiboyun and Baijiayun, reported a 10 to 20 times increase in user numbers compared to the same period in 2019.
While regular schools are supposedly restricted to a maximum of roughly 50 students per class in China, there is no regulation for online class sizes. Some of the companies offered online classes that accommodated, simultaneously, 10,000 students each. Large online classes reduce unit costs and increase total revenue; they are in fact considered a good business model in terms of scalability and profitability. Such online markets often transcend national boundaries and provide services to students overseas. In such cases, it is even harder for governments to have full statistics on the scale of online tutoring, financial transactions and the overall impact on the learning achieved by students.
While large online education companies saw a big boost to their business since the pandemic forced schools worldwide to class, small and medium-sized companies have suffered. Similar to mainstream schools, small and medium-sized tutoring centres in Hong Kong and China closed physical offices and remained shut until late May and early June, leading to cash flow shortages. Such smaller companies without prior experience in online education struggled to switch to the online mode. Some companies were shut down as they could not afford high rental costs. Moreover, with the suspension of international English language tests, such as IELTS, GRE and TOEFL, as well as uncertain prospects of student international mobility, companies and individuals offering such services experienced low demand.
Relatedly, corporate social responsibility has emerged as a new trend among tutoring providers, especially in the first phase of the pandemic. For example, to minimise the impact of COVID-19 on student learning, leading Chinese online companies, such as TAL education and VIPKID, started offering their services for free to millions of students. While some see it as companies acting in socially responsible ways, others highlight hidden business strategies, which can be linked to what is coined “philantropocapitalism”. This signals the changing role that education businesses play in policy responses locally and globally.
The massive involvement of private actors in our nascent post-Pandemic educational landscape creates fertile ground for accelerated marketization of education. These companies tend to be driven by the desire to generate profits while governments’ responsibilities are to ensure equitable access to quality education. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic by private and public providers of education is simply the amplification of an already existing trend. As the policy responses to the virus evolve, how can a balance be achieved between the two in the long run?
Online education providers may dominate education systems for the foreseeable future. As predicted, public education is going to experience financial hurdles, while education enterprises are experimenting with attractive educational innovations. How are governments getting ready for increased competition? Should they?
What can public education learn from the pandemic? Perhaps COVID-19 is highlighting some deficiencies in public education, and authorities in respective countries should re-evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their education systems. There is a possibility of learning from the private sector in terms of adaptability and flexibility. An effective response from governments is likely to require radical re-assessment of the aims of education and the adoption of a broad outlook rather than a narrow focus on exams and assessments. There is a need for public education to rethink its mission and revitalize its role.
Nutsa Kobakhidze is an Assistant Professor in Comparative and International Education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong.
Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.
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