Overview of the Chinese Children’s Programming Education Industry in 2019
COVID-19 and China
A child using a tablet to program robot. Image credit: stem.T4L/Unsplash

Statistics from the Ministry of Education show that, in 2018, 18.63 million children were enrolled in preschool education in China. The pre-, primary, and middle-school students are the core users of the current programming education curriculum in the digitally ambitious Asian nation.

Children's programming education is generally aimed at children in elementary schools and below. Typically learning programming literacy involves studying how to convert an original complex English code language into a graphical language, and is presented through games, animations and building block components in an instructional and modular manner. It aims to cultivate children's multiple abilities such as observation, imagination, creativity, logical thinking, problem-solving, judgmental thinking, sequence and conditions, and debugging operation ability.

What made the track flourish?

The support for introducing children's programming in China was tepid in the early days, but large waves of capital inflow in 2017 gave birth to many programming education companies.

Refined programming courses give users more choices. These include a series of early ‘programming guidance’ courses such as programming games and visual graphics.

There are countless mainstream programming courses on the market that can meet such requirements. Parents who do not generally understand the content of children's programming courses cannot differentiate between children's programming and children's coding. This also reflects a certain extent that the current market for children's programming is still in a state of development. 

Currently, Lego, Scratch, Python, and C++ are generally referred to as children's programming courses on the market. Most of the children's programming education firms choose Scratch as the main programming teaching tool, and institutions with less exam-oriented systems choose C++ courses. 

Lego education is an innovative approach, focused on cultivating an early interest in logical problem-solving. Children can start with normal Lego building blocks and gradually move on to Lego robot programming. 

Scratch focuses on the development of children’s programming thinking. It is also the most widely used children's programming software package on the market. It uses a graphical programming module to visualize the programming language, making it easier for children to understand the basic meaning of programming. 

As a transition language between Scratch and C ++, Python is relatively suitable for middle school children, and it is often used as an advanced language for children who have already learned Scratch.

Policy support has become the primary productive force of the industry. Education has always been deeply influenced by policy adjustments. Provinces with policies supporting programming or IT have developed significantly faster than other regions. Hence policy is one of the main reasons that children's programming is being taken seriously in today's education industry.

Today's artificial intelligence development has an increasing demand for digital talents, and the current teaching model finds it difficult to meet the requirements of the times in the development of high-tech industries and talent training. New technologies and new talents are out of touch with the current society as soon as they leave college. With the current technological trends and adjustment of industrial institutions, it is imperative to cultivate new IT talents.

The upgrading of the consumer environment. As people born in the 1980s and 1990s enter the stage of getting married and having children, these two generations have become an important driving force for changing consumer habits around child-rearing. The new generation of mothers pays more attention to children's education and training due to their strong consumption habits and higher education level. Spending on children is also rising, with increased incomes allowing these parents to afford expensive, high-quality products. In addition, the new generation of parents have become more international, and are more likely to accept new things, which is also good for the development of children's programming.

Capital injection. According to Data collected by EDU INSIGHT at the end of 2019, 70 children's programming firms completed various degrees of investment and financing or listing. Among them, there were a number of children's programming startups such as Walnut education (核桃编程), Jikestar (极客晨星), Codemao (编程猫), etc., which showed the potential future of the track.

More challenges, fewer opportunities?

The ministry of education and eight other departments recently issued a notice which requires guardians to control the use of electronic products by children. It stated that electronic products for non-learning purposes should not be used more than 15 minutes at a time and not more than an hour in a day. The usage of electronic products for learning purposes should be 30 to 40 minutes per day. 

Giving high importance to children’s eyesight protection and incorporating it into policies will have a strong impact on the development of children’s programming education. 

With more startups in the market, it is harder to raise investment.

According to EDU INSIGHT’s data, among the 210 children's programming companies, 139 have not disclosed any financing records. From the 70 companies that have, few have been able to raise Series B and C. The industry has seen significant firms close down. Companies (especially companies without any disclosure of financing records) cannot polish their business models without stable cash flow and it is very difficult for them to raise money.

There are still gaps in the curriculum system and teachers. From the perspective of current programming teaching, the curriculum system promoted by most children's programming companies mainly refers to one of the standards of American children's programming curriculum system. 

Compared with other education tracks, the domestic market for children’s programming is still in the early stage; the number and size of players of the industry are small and many companies are still trying different business models. Course and curriculum system is fundamental for the industry to have a sustainable and healthy development, but at present, a relatively uniform standard has not been formed.

The market still needs to be educated. Compared with traditional education, the final feedback and evaluation system in children's programming is not standardized. Classroom communication, project reporting, project tracking and self-evaluation between teachers and students is required. The vast majority of parents are not very familiar with the concept of children's programming, and the market still needs to be cultivated.

Competition from other industries. The competition within the track is gradually entering a fierce stage. In addition to companies within the track, there are other large-scale enterprises related to education, and other industries such as gaming and hardware, who want to get a slice of the emerging market.

Educational giants such as TAL and New Oriental, English language training unicorn VIPkid, drone manufacturers DJI, Tech titan Huawei and various other huge firms have already entered the track.

Business models

Online and offline. It is worth noting that there are almost no offline-only or online-only children’s programming companies in the lead. Companies such as Codemao (编程猫), Tong Cheng Tong Mei (童程童美), etc., all use both online and offline teaching methods. Walnut education (核桃编程) is the only one which adopts an online-only model.

At present, the training courses on the market basically have 1V1, or one-to-many small classes. 1V1 teaching has high efficiency, flexible teaching time, personalized content customization, richer classroom interaction, and it is easier to motivate students to learn.

We have also seen a breakthrough in the application of the ‘human-AI dual-teacher interactive learning system.’ At present, the error judgment ability of teachers in programming learning has reached 100%, and we can say that its feedback guidance information has reached about 70 to 80%. With the support of AI data collection and analysis, the system can find a more suitable programming learning method for children, optimize human-computer interaction, and increase the fun to be found in learning. AI teachers can reduce costs to the greatest extent and reduce the burden on users in terms of the price of courses.

2B and 2C. The user base is large, but the market is fragmented, and the cost of acquiring customers is relatively high. Compared to 2C, 2B seems to be still in an early stage of development. 2B's business is now mainly to provide textbooks, teacher training and other content for schools and training institutions. Children's programming education in public schools has not yet become popular, and school programming is gradually introducing children's programming courseware and some related services. 

The Capital

Compared with 2018, each track declined, but STEAM surpassed K12 and became the most popular education sector of the industry for investors. Compared with a 75% drop in K12 and a 70% drop in preschool education, STEAM is relatively stable with a 25% drop.

It can be seen that, despite the calmness of the industry, the STEAM education track has been least affected by the market, and there is huge potential in the future.

For the development of enterprises, in addition to policy support, capital injection is also very important.

In the context of the recognized capital winter in 2019, there were still 33 investment institutions that would ‘bet money’ on the children's programming track. Some investment institutions have also made multiple capital injections into the same company.

The development of children's programming is still in a state of capital leadership, and the industry is developing at a rather decent pace. However, the lack of huge investments has caused the industry to show a downward trend. In order to overcome this, the companies need to let policy and innovation take over the industry instead of allowing capital to become the most solid pillar beneath it.

Rather than more and more small companies entering the field of children's programming, we hope to see industry giants continue to make efforts to open up new areas and find new opportunities. Under competitive pressure from other industries and the changing of the market structure, the track is quickly becoming more exciting. 

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