China is on lockdown, and the whole world is watching developments about the coronavirus in real-time. Yet amidst the fear and panic, there’s a surprising consequence: students and workers who are effectively captive behind closed doors are logging online en masse. 

Movies and games have primed us to brace for the spread of the deadly coronavirus, which has a mortality rate similar to relatively potent seasonal flu variants. As the rest of the world awaits news, and scientists work towards a possible vaccine, the Chinese are largely confined to their homes. Indeed, coronavirus trepidation has already caused a downturn in the retail sector, with many stocks trading lower.

Transportation has all but ground to a halt, and almost all factories and stores have shut. With enormous numbers of people throughout China unable to even exit their apartment complexes at will, one would expect widespread boredom. However, Chinese software companies are rising to meet people’s needs, creating a boom in ed-tech and networking platforms.

Don’t panic: learn!

TAL Education is the biggest ed-tech company in the country. It started offering an extensive series of free trial live-video-based course offerings for children starting from as early as January 26th. There are options for core subjects as well as enrichment subjects like Scratch programming and calligraphy, with thousands of kids participating live (including some from Wuhan students who were specifically introduced to the large audience).

For students, according to Li Ting of the scientific communications firm Cataba—who is living amongst the coronavirus control measures in Beijing—the slogan in vogue is “stop school, but don’t stop studying”. As Li tells us, “workers and students are making the most of their time at home, and much of China has broadband internet. It’s a great opportunity to switch to working online, and we’re excited that this new way of working will be more efficient and flexible.”

China online: a booming market

Ed-tech in China has skyrocketed in recent years, which is no surprise in a country that culturally prioritizes educational attainment. One such company, GSX Techedu, has exploded onto the scene since going public in 2019 with shares tripling in value and forecasts for growth in earnings of 163% over the next year.

GSX, which aims to bridge the learning imbalance between cities and urban areas, is among a very large number of companies angling to take advantage of the new surge of users—and this is a market that was already leading the world. Several Chinese companies are already valued at over a billion dollars, while the giant TAL Education had a net worth of almost $20 billion last year, with Stocks reaching a five year high in mid-January on Nasdaq.

Li explains some of the benefits of online education: “I bought a large package of lessons for my daughter yesterday for about $20 an hour. It’s one-on-one learning and can help to solve specific problems. It’s personally tailored and flexible, which offers benefits over the offline version of schooling, which is less specific for the student. Online, we can tell the teacher what we want to learn, and they can prepare a lesson in advance.”

A catalyst for change in global business

Ed-tech globally has seen a consistent and remarkable rise, projected to be worth over $250 billion this year. VC investment in China is by far the biggest of all.

With the convenience of online interactions being put squarely in the spotlight in such a global powerhouse as China this is perhaps a unique catalyst for how we change our working and learning habits to increase sustainability: online working offers a quick and easy route to reduce emissions.  

Li explains that in China, “most of us are still waiting without big changes because we believe that the virus will be controlled soon and life will return to normal.” But in the meantime, this is “a great chance to switch our model of how we do global business.” Her firm recently switched from in-person meetings to Zoom-based consulting sessions with international and internal clients.

This upsurge in learning and working online in China indicates that there is the potential—and the demand—for a lot of things to change. When a whole generation of Chinese students is used to being educated online, that opens up a great opportunity when they make the step into the working world.

A surprising consequence of coronavirus? Perhaps a shift to a more sustainable way of working for everyone.