For the past three years or so, ELTjam has been working with CollegePre, a Beijing-based EdTech company whose digital content delivery platform is the muscle behind Cambridge ClassServer, a classroom technology solution developed jointly by CollegePre, Cambridge University Press and Cambridge English Language Assessment. We’ve been developing of learning materials for this platform, as well as spending time in China collaborating with CollegePre’s product team on testing, demonstrating and refining the ClassServer’s features. On one such visit, I managed to get 10 mins with CollegePre’s CEO, Walter Wang, to get his perspective on the EdTech scene in China and the opportunities that have guided him throughout his career.
Walter describes himself as a lifelong entrepreneur. He casually admits, as we’re sitting in his office in Beijing’s central business district, that he’s never had a boss in his life. I’m meeting with Walter to discuss his journey within the flourishing China EdTech scene and to hear his opinions on China’s contribution to the industry more globally. He has a corner office on the 16th floor, so we’re looking out across a pristine, modern business complex out of one window, watching an endless procession of taxis shuttling visiting dignitaries and tourists in and out of the nearby Grand Hyatt. Whilst, from the other vantage point, we are given a postcard perfect view of Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences with its patinated green sloping eaves associated with buildings of a particular vintage. It doesn’t look out of place beside the bustle of the businesses around it. Instead, it looks watchful, as if it’s keeping a close eye on its vital signs.
Walter starts by telling me about the various ventures he has set up and run over the last three decades. He talks about his computer business that, in the 1980s, brought personal computers into the mainland China market and how it proved to be an immensely successful business for the young entrepreneur. He talks about how he left China in 1989 to take a break from the business world and to live in the US. He then describes how, after a few years out of the boardroom, he began missing the challenges and tribulations of building a business.
He tells me about his next venture, ATA, a company that delivered computer-based exams and vocational certifications across a range of industries and sectors. It was through this business that he worked closely with Cambridge Assessment and made contacts that would eventually contribute to future business ventures.
It’s at this point that I will let Walter speak for himself …
In all honesty, my experience prior to ATA had never been as an educational industry entrepreneur. When I started to plan my next career (before I came back from the US in 1999), I was reflecting on how I had founded a lot of small businesses in the past. Some were successful, some failed. If I was going to start all over again, I would like 1) to find a brand new industry that nobody had ever explored, and 2) I would like to be the Number 1 of that industry.
After a full year, I found that, overall, China has a very long history of testing, but had never had a testing industry.
After taking ATA to IPO in 2011, I began to weary of boardroom politics and decision making, so I took a break for a year or so. I soon got a bit bored with the quiet life, however, because I’m used to the busy life, you know; to face the challenges every day.
I started to look for investment opportunities in the education sector, and I found the Young Learner sector a very interesting one. Also, I got an opportunity to talk with Sesame Street Workshop in New York. I started a year-long negotiation with them and finally got the contract to use the Sesame Street English brand to deliver into the kids’ English Education market in China.
In the meantime, because I had worked with Cambridge Assessment for over 10 years with ATA, and my old friend (and former Cambridge English Language Assessment CEO) Mike Milanovic had recently retired, I just picked up the phone. I talked with Mike about how we could leverage our experience over the past decade or so by working with Cambridge-related resources to serve the Chinese education market. I wanted to see if we could find an opportunity on that path.
After that, we started to discuss the idea with Cambridge English, Cambridge Assessment, and also Cambridge University Press. And we spent almost one and a half years discussing the details, but finally came up with an agreement to set up a three-party joint venture company between Cambridge Assessment, Cambridge University Press, and CollegePre (my latest venture).
These three parties were combining their efforts towards the following objectives: firstly, to leverage and further enhance CollegePre’s existing technology to develop the most advanced education platform to be used in both the classroom and also over the internet. Secondly, to develop a new digital format for learning content, and finally to address markets not only in China, and also worldwide.
I have found that, although China is overall a developing country, in the big cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the educational technology is very, very advanced. Not only the software, but also the equipment. It’s often more advanced than UK schools or US schools, particularly in first and second tier cities. Furthermore, Chinese people are very, very, willing to invest in their children’s education. They are willing to work very hard, and to save money and invest in their children. Also, because of the one child policy, there’s a very strange saying in China that six pockets will support one child. So, that makes the Chinese education market very, very advanced, and also a very hot market. That’s why I’m willing to invest money to develop the most advanced education platform together with Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press, to serve this kind of high end market that’s pretty special when compared with other places around the world, especially in Europe or in America.
The product we launched to respond to that opportunity is the ClassServer platform.
The ClassServer is an interactive digital content delivery platform that can be used both inside and outside a classroom. All of the learning content is accessed through mobile devices or on an interactive screen in the classroom. Any piece of learning content on the ClassServer system can be shared with any combination of learners, at any time, and is marked automatically.
This means we can collect data – data about the interactions between teacher and students, and about the interactions between the students and the course content they engage with. Later on, we can use that data to better help the teacher to fine tune their teaching methodology, and also help the publishers to adjust their learning content, and also help assessment organisations like Cambridge Assessment to design better exams.
The same data can be fed back to students so that they can learn from their classmates’ experiences. Furthermore, the parents can learn what kind of progress their son or daughter is making in school, and in what areas they need to be better supported. It helps the parents to work together with the teachers in order to help the kids.
You cannot find a teaching platform like this in the world. You can find this function in that software, or find that function in this software, but overall, you cannot find a platform that puts everything together. So, frankly speaking, we’re saying that this is the most advanced platform in the world.
Now, the biggest challenge that we (and Chinese EdTech companies generally) have to face is that, on the one hand, people want a very high end education, and on the other hand, if the content is delivered online, people here have a tendency to think that the content should be free.
Another challenge we face is perhaps best summarised by the Chinese word gongli. It’s a word that I cannot directly translate into English, but let me take an example. Let’s say I’m a parent and I want to send my son to a test prep school. My main intention is not to improve my kid’s knowledge. My main intention is to raise the marks of my kid’s tests. No matter if it’s a higher score, or total score or a level or GCSE score. The score is the key to the education market here in China. But, you know, the experience that most of the US or UK educators have is around how to help the learners to improve their knowledge, not just how improve your score in 30 days. So, that’s probably the biggest challenge that we’re facing, or the educational technology sector is facing, in China.
There are a lot of people trying to leverage technology for improving a score, but not necessarily for improving the learner’s longer term education or knowledge.
As I ride the lift down from the 16th floor to the lobby I reflect on Walter’s comment that ‘the score is the key to the education market’ in China. Does that mean that ELT publishers or content developers need to dramatically reevaluate their mission when engaging with this rapidly developing market? Can and should ELT just be about attaining scores, in accordance with gongli? Or is China still developing as an ELT ‘consumer’; focusing on the short term, necessary achievements in language learning but will, inevitably, recognise the shortcomings of ‘disposable ELT’? Let’s hope so. We reach the ground floor and the lift doors open. I hail a cab and we head off into the city, past the watchful eye of the medical college.