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“Little Ape” search explores Chinese online education with a nod to “Khan Academy”

Siyang Wang

Busily expanding to provide “free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere”, the Khan Academy has inspired the likes of Yuantiku, a Chinese online education platform, to follow in its steps.

Earlier this year, Yuantiku launched a mobile app called “Little Ape” search targeting the K12 sector (students from kindergarten through to the 12th grade). The app allows users to quickly get solutions to their problems simply by uploading pictures of their questions. The search engine attempts to match search queries with videos of actual lectures from teachers explaining solutions.

The Yuantiku videos have adopted the Khan Academy style. The videos tend to be short – 3-5 minutes in length – step-by-step explanations of problems with only teacher orally tutoring without showing their faces. This a trick from Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy to help students to focus on mathes. Teachers voluntarily post their videos for free. Many use the platform to generate reviews and feedback from users, which helps to build a reputation and enhance future tutoring prospects. The app is also free “for anyone, anywhere”.

“The video feature distinguishes us from other similar products. ‘Little Ape’ search is a leader in the field in terms of user numbers and popularity.” Li Xin, the co-founder of Yuantiku, told AllChinaTech.

According to Li, more than 350 million pictures are uploaded everyday and around 20% of questions are answered with videos. Yuantiku aims to raise this percentage to 50% by the end of 2015. It has only been three years since the company was founded in 2012 by Li Yong as its CEO. He’s the former chief editor of news portal NetEase.

Though the “Little Ape” Search looks like the Khan Academy, it bears strong Chinese characteristics. Firstly, instead of providing knowledge systematically, the “Little Ape” search is question-answer oriented and is like a tool for China’s exam-focused education system.

Li Xin believes Little Ape search offers “a learning path” for K12 students that will help them accumulate knowledge through the solutions and videos the app provides. Some argue though that the app could be used as a cheat-sheet if not used properly.

Where the Khan Academy functions as an NGO, Little Ape search serves as Yuantiku’s signature product in its attempt to expand its userbase and grab more market share. “We hope K12 students will get attached to our products when they study,” Li said.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Chinese K12 students numbered 162 million at the end of 2013. According to a report from Analysys, despite China’s online education industry seeing annual growth of 19%, in the first quarter 2015 active users of online education only occupied 8% of the total K12 population. Online education targeting the K12 sector has much potential to grow.

Most of the companies in the Chinese online education industry busily burn cash in the fight to capture more users. “We are in no rush to make a profit and our priority is to grab more market share,” Li said. The company secured USD 60 million in funding in April this year.

Its rivals, including Xuebajun, have followed a similar path launching free apps and features to build a reputation among users. Others are trying to link online education with offline training institutions. Last year, Baidu Inc. invested USD 10 million into Universal Education Group, one of the largest training institutions in China. Baidu is hoping to build an online platform where training institutions and teachers can present high quality lectures, as a way to stimulate viewers into applying for training programs offered offline.

At the end of 2014, the market value for online education in China was estimated at RMB 84 billion (USD 13.3 b) with that number expected to climb to to almost 200 billion by 2017, an Analysys survey suggests.

Though the market potential is inspiring, most of the companies have not come up with an effective monetization strategy so far.

Earlier this month, Yuantiku made a significant attempt by cooperating with a middle school in Sichuan province. Using Yuantiku’s database of practice questions, teachers can give assignments through the app and analyse student performance quickly and accurately, helped along by intelligent algorithms and big data.

“Cooperating with more public schools will be Yuantiku’s next big move in expanding its user base,” Li said.

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