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China-Finland ICT Alliance and DIGILE activities in education represent the “Learning Solutions” part of the Sino-Finnish Learning Garden (SFLG) that has been initiated by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture (MoEC) and being developed in cooperation with the Chinese Ministry of Education (MoE). Working together with the key academic, public and industry partners in both countries, this focus area aims at bringing schools, academia, national research programmes (e.g. the Academy of Finland and Tekes, the SHOKs such as DIGILE), China-Finland ICT Alliance, companies and authorities to join their efforts to co-create modern learning solutions to foster 21st century skills among students in China and Finland. It covers learning research, teacher training and learning solutions, i.e. technology, services, and content, ranging from kindergarten to primary, secondary, higher education and to vocational and professional education.
The DIGILE and China-Finland ICT Alliance activities take place in two main areas in learning solution cooperation:
I EduTech Business Ecosystem: for creating, testing, adapting and scaling innovative solutions in education, involving international business pilots together with Chinese partners. The EduTech Ecosystem is meant for companies.
II EduTech Research Forum: for universities and research institutions, planned to launch in September 2014 (at the Forum on Education Solutions for Sino-Finnish Learning Garden – ”21st Century Learning Skills”).
In addition there are ongoing discussions for setting up joint education Cloud services for R&D&I and pilots in China.
Some observations on online education and learning solutions market in China
Online education and learning solutions area is under an active development both for serving public sector and private sector educational institutions as well as the huge online (and mobile) consumer market in China.There are several major developments and education reforms ongoing or being planned that may provide joint development and business opportunities. Examples of these include the need to deliver education to the countryside, the growing demand of vocational education including in public and private sectors, and the education reforms ranging from Kindergartens to universities that will extensively leverage digital delivery (e.g. the education cloud services, the e-textbook and e-Schoolbag initiative and others).
The Chinese education tradition has emphasised performance in exams at various levels and the major goal for students is the Gaokao national university entrance exams. In June 2014 close to 10 million students participated.There is a call for renewal of the education system to emphasise more open-ended and innovation-driven approaches and the learning of “soft skills” in addition to the “hard facts” as the prevailing education approaches are not optimal for meeting the future needs.
What Finland may bring into play also in the EduTech area is the support for enabling the move towards student-centered approach, complementing the theory and textbook based materials with real-life experiences, and providing solutions for learning the so called “21st century learning skills” in social settings, encouraging experimentation and allowing for failure. The “Learning is Fun” approach promoted by many of the Finnish education experts and EduTech companies can also encourage students to become involved in social and physical activities for learning the “soft skills” and for better wellbeing.
The rapid growth of China’s Internet and mobile user base has continued and the number Internet users in China reached over 600 million by 2013. It is particularly noticeable that since the penetration of (mobile) Internet reached close to half of the population the online education market has grown even much faster. While market growth demonstrates the potential, the field is becoming fiercely competed as market positions are being built. The established players, like New Oriental, face new challengers, including the Internet e-commerce, social networking and games giants, like Alibaba and Tencent, that provide education services and apps stores. Actually, new partnerships are being formed among the players (e.g. New Oriental has teamed up with BesTV and rumoured to also join forces with Tencent).
Some recent trends in the market indicate that parents are prepared to spend even more on the education of their child as the income level has risen. In order to adopt new solutions there should be demonstrated evidence on the benefits, including not only new skills and wellbeing but also maintaining or improving performance in the mandatory tests, when dealing with curriculum topics.
The rural-urban migration continues and will be increasing demand for vocational education and adult education encouraging private investments. Working together with actors involved in the development of the vocational education and well as in the renewal of the university sector, like the development of the universities of applied sciences in China, there will be better visibility to the needs for digital solutions and possibilities to cooperate with their development and large-scale deployment. While cooperating on research and pilots related to education reforms the learning solutions (technology and services) should be considered as a part of more comprehensive Sino-Finnish solutions, involving teacher training, curriculum development so that the learning solutions are integrated, and the development of the physical and virtual (online) learning spaces, including classrooms and complete schools that enable new kinds of learning and also support wellbeing of students.
About the challenges and opportunities in the public and private sector and consumer market
Despite the rapid growth, the consumer market in digital content and services appears to be challenging for international players. For example, the entertainment content, such as movies, music, TV shows and games the models differ from those in the West. For example, in mobile apps and games, the revenues are seldom generated from the downloads but rather in-app (in-game) purchases of value adding services, such as speeding up in the game, getting to next levels, etc. Due to the sheer size of the market experiencing growing demand of learning services in areas such as English language or mathematics, there is a lot of competition, including also free offerings. However, the parents often pay for the solutions if they can be demonstrated to bring progress in learning (e.g. in passing the curriculum tests).
Taking the market environment into account in planning, the offerings and business models will be needed. With quality content and right kinds of partnerships, the consumer market is a viable area. There is a good track record of Finnish game companies to be followed by educational offerings.
In parallel, the public education and private schools markets will be addressable when the appropriate channels are established and solutions certified. Indeed, in the public sector where the solutions are part of the curriculum, the role of education authorities is essential and without being approved to the curriculum it will be difficult to bring solutions to the market. As some parts of the curriculum may be defined at the local level, it will be important to establish cooperation with authorities and education experts who can mandate and carry out special pilots at the City and District levels. In the Sino-Finnish Learning Garden, contacts have been established with Municipal Education Commissions in Beijing and in Shanghai. For a Finnish provider, one school district even in a second tier city may be a major case.
The EduTech Ecosystem – enabling business pilots in China
While there are many interesting learning area comes in Finland they often lack the resources to go alone into new markets, like China. With EduTech Business Ecosystem, representing the learning solutions of the Sino-Finnish Learning Garden, we gather together companies to form business pilots and “clusters” to better to meet the demand. In the Ecosystem the effort and risk can be shared and the creation of a more comprehensive and therefore more attractive offerings becomes possible.
More importantly, the aim is not just to enable of Finnish solutions export and localisation in China, but together with Chinese partners to develop solutions for China and Finland – and to the global learning market.”We try to get contacts for the benefit of business solutions, experimentation, implementation and business development in China. And when we put the reputation of Finland in the game, we have together with companies to ensure that we keep our promises. This is for all of us it is a positive challenge.”
Cooperation with Tekes Learning Solution programme
EduTech Ecosystem and ICT Alliance have initiated cooperation with Tekes Learning Solution programme to leverage the synergies. On 3 June Tekes Business Breakfast was organised at Finlandia Hall by the Learning Solutions Programme in cooperation with DIGILE. The meeting gathered a number of companies and organisations interested in the EduTech Ecosystem and in exploring the Chinese education market.
The programme was opened by Ms. Suvi Sundquist, Director of the Learning Solutions Programme of Tekes, followed by presentation on EduTech Ecosystem and the Sino-Finnish Learning Garden by Mr. Matti Hämäläinen, and the FORGE Service Lab by Mrs. Pia Erkinheimo, Head of Crowds & Communities, at DIGILE. The session resulted to the group of interested companies join EduTech in areas such as primary school education as well as professional education.