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COVID-19: Future of English Language (ESL) Teaching in China 2020

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The coronavirus (COVID-19) has had a huge impact in a very short space of time on the online English language teaching (ELT) industry in China.
With hundreds of thousands of students effectively unable to leave their homes, schools, brick-and-mortar language schools and existing online teaching companies rushed to get as many of them learning online as possible.
As with everything in China, the change from classroom-based teaching to online learning was incredibly fast, and while many people are now back at work, many schools have still not reopened. Primary and secondary schools started online classes in Shanghai as of March 2. Classes are delivered either via cable TV channels or through platforms like Ding Talk, a popular chat and video conferencing app (think a mix of WhatsApp and Zoom). Indeed, Ding Talk reports that more than 700,000 students in Wuhan alone are taking classes on the platform.


The market was difficult even before the outbreak, with competition from the new online language schools. This put a real strain on brick and mortar schools that were teaching offline. It was only in October of 2019 when Webi (Web International English), a large chain, went out of business leaving staff unpaid and students without reimbursement. 

With the coronavirus, many language schools across China faced a huge problem. In an already challenging market, they were unable to operate. Faced with no income and potentially still liable for their ongoing costs such as rental and staff salaries, they have experienced heavy losses in what is traditionally a strong sales period after the Chinese New Year. 

Moreover larger online providers like TAL have been looking to capitalise on the situation by partnering with over 300 public schools across China and others offering free or discounted classes.



While primary and secondary schools may return to school as normal, the situation could be very different for smaller language schools. Students may return and some may survive with a big hit to their annual income. 

But while students may return in the short term to take classes they had already paid for, now that they have experienced online classes, which they may not have done before, will they continue to enrol in courses, or will they switch to online providers?

In the online training webinars I have run there is a clear fear among language schools that they have to adapt quickly to online teaching, not just during the coronavirus, but for the foreseeable future.


Online English classes are not a new phenomenon in China. EF, Education First, a big player in the Chinese market, has been running online classes as part of a blended/hybrid model (where students do some classes face to face and additional classes online) since the early 2000s.

The proposition is simple. As a student or parent, a decade ago, you had to enrol at your local language school, hope they provide a good teacher and spend a significant proportion of your income. Now you can enrol your child at an online school, pick and choose the teacher and not have to sit and wait in the lounge for the class to finish after work or on the weekend. If you are not happy with the school, you can simply switch to another provider.



Given this potentially accelerated competition from online, many schools are asking more than ever ‘what they can do to compete with purely online schools?’ A common strategy seems to be to try to move to a blended/hybrid model, the strategy that Education First has been using for several years.

There are challenges in doing this. Not only do brick-and-mortar schools need to differentiate from online schools somehow, the transition to online teaching, as many have experienced, is not easy.

While in the short term platforms like Ding Talk work as they can be deployed very quickly and cheaply, they are not really designed as online classrooms and don’t have the key features required for teaching (interactive class materials, student reward systems, drawing tools etc.) Nor do they have student and teacher management systems to handle scheduling, class feedback or customer service.

While parents will no doubt understand the expediency of teaching online via a platform like Ding Talk, it’s not a sustainable model long term (unless Ding Talk adjusts the platform quickly for its new user case!)



There is an industry tied to the ELT industry that recruits foreign teachers into China. There is a lot of concern that the supply of qualified foreign teachers will become even tighter. In the short term at least, rightly or wrongly, China may no longer be seen an attractive destination for teachers due to the coronavirus. Given the Chinese government’s recent tightening of regulations on teachers’ qualifications and backgrounds, some smaller schools are going to need to reassess the feasibility of the foreign teacher in the offline classroom. 

With no reduction in desire from parents and students for qualified foreign teachers however, new models for language schools will be needed if foreign teacher supply does indeed fall. One option that will need to be explored is an expanded role for high-quality local teachers teaching in the offline classroom coupled with an independent contractor foreign teacher teaching online. This could be either joining the classroom live via a teaching platform or as additional classes when students are at home. 


The impact of the coronavirus will not just be felt in the Chinese ELT market, but many other countries that rely on China as a source of a lot of their students. With the travel restrictions due to the fear of a global spread Chinese students are not travelling to language schools and camps abroad. In the UK bookings have already fallen dramatically, and with other major sources of students, such as Italy and Japan, also reducing bookings the future is looking rather bleak for some businesses. They too will need to find ways to adapt to the changing future of ELT.

We have been saying it for years but the coronavirus may have just proved it. The future of language teaching not just in China, but globally, is online.


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