BlogSpending a week in China with HolonIQ

Late November, I was fortunate to join the HolonIQ’s 2019 Executive Education Market Immersion program in Beijing. For those of you who are unfamiliar with…

Late November, I was fortunate to join the HolonIQ’s 2019 Executive Education Market Immersion program in Beijing. For those of you who are unfamiliar with HolonIQ, I recommend you check them out and sign up for the weekly newsletters. HolonIQ a global education intelligence platform that is “on a mission to connect the world with the technology, skills, and capital to transform education”. The company aims to connect learners with institutions through its machine learning platform and a global network of partners to the latest edtech and skills to improve future innovation. Check out HolonIQ’s open-source taxonomy for the future of education here to learn more about the company.

HolonIQ’s Executive Program is one such recurring event in the company’s repertoire which they set up to reach out to education leaders from all over the world to “explore learning innovation and gain an in-depth understanding of the world’s emerging and high-velocity education markets”. The Beijing Program, which I attended, consisted of 5 jam-packed days of workshops, conferences, bus rides, panel discussions, photograph posing, networking, company site visits, Starbucks coffee runs, dining, and, of course, watching dancing robots. 

Huikedu Group

The sheer volume of information and insights that I have gained from the Program and my fellow group members is yet to have really resonated with me. As I boarded the plane to come home though, I jotted down my most articulate 3 reflections to date. 

China is huge… like, really HUGE  

I appreciate that we know this intellectually. We can see the breadth of China on a map and we hear the stats about its population. However, I am not sure that until you stand in a city that has nearly the same population as your entire home country that you truly realise it though. 

Here are some ‘fast stats’ that resonated and helped me truly grasp the size of the country:

  • China has the largest education system in the world.
  • There are ~2660 universities. Australia has 43.
  • There are ~28.3 million students enrolled in these universities. 
  • There is a ‘top 50’ list of universities that everyone is vying to attend. 
  • 2018 studies recorded 103.39 million primary (or elementary) students and 23.75 million secondary students (to put this in context, the whole measured population for the country of Egypt—at the time of writing this—is 101 million, while Australia’s total population is 25 million).

So what does this mean for education? Well, for one thing, it means competition for resources is fierce. Add to this, there is a strong cultural mindset of scarcity. It is a really competitive environment where parents are spending a lot of money to buy education and opportunities. Outside the normal school day, there are 1000’s of companies vying for parents RMBs.  

Entrepreneurs who are tapped in and capturing even 1% of this market are becoming very wealthy individuals. I am sure you can imagine there are downsides to this but as I am not an expert in investing, I will not go down that path.  

Scaling with technology, but forgetting we are humans

Due to the huge population and the quest to scale education to reach their citizens, technology is being readily leveraged and heavily invested in. The conversation around AI and how it is and will be used in Chinese classrooms is both scary and intriguing. 

At the Global Education Summit, I was able to have a machine rate my teaching ability after reading out an educational script. It assessed my expressions, annunciation, tone, hand gestures, and pace of speech. I performed as anyone would if you were acting on stage; which scored me an 85. I was also told, ‘You should be a teacher,” by the guy manning the booth. I responded that I was, but that “I didn’t learn my craft from a machine, I learned it from humans”. 

I fear examples of AI such as this training method in isolation may create a nation of robot teachers with permanently raised eyebrows and high-pitched voices!

In addition, I witnessed a very scary vision be articulated by a large AI firm during a panel at Tsinghua University. Their aim is to develop AI machines to read bedtime stories to children, deeming this to be “educational”. Sure, reading to children is part of how to create a well-rounded educational experience, but that is not all that reading bedtime stories to little ones is about. It’s about human connection, attention, and creating and sharing joint experiences with loved ones—not robots. 

In the many AI conversations that I was witness to, human needs, ethics, and privacy were not typically on the agenda. AI has its place and I get excited when I hear of it reducing the administration burden on teachers, however, it needs to be carefully considered.

Unfortunately, governments are still grappling with AI’s many applications and can’t legislate or implement policies fast enough. So it’s up to consumers to do our due diligence and pushback, but this is what I fear large corporations are banking on us not doing. 

Racing to automate with little concern for the national consequences

During Jeff Maggioncalda’s (Coursera’s CEO) presentation at the GES, he relayed many interesting statistics to the crowd. One that stuck with me was that according to Coursera’s analysis, 110+ million Chinese workers are at risk of losing their jobs to automation. Yes… that is right. Over 4 times the population of Australia could be displaced and be required to upskill in the next 10 years. 

So, how are all these people going to reskill? Culturally, the vocational pathway is less desired but is probably the answer to this question. Like all nations, the Chinese need to be fostering a culture of lifeline learning with resilience and adaptability at a person’s core. 

Currently, the country’s education system is built for the industrial revolution, not the technological one. They are still seeing education as a didactic experience.  Even during a promotional video for a future AI in classrooms, the students were depicted as sitting in single desks and all facing one teacher at the front who was instructing. 

If the country can’t adapt its education system quickly enough to prepare its population for the new world, then it will have a serious humanitarian crisis on its hands.  

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In conclusion

China should not be underestimated by anyone. What the country does will influence the world in ways we may not even yet imagine. The population is racing to learn English so they can play in both worlds, but how many of us are racing to learn Mandarin? The country’s drive to advance its technology is so strong we must watch closely regardless of the sector we work in. However, we need to come at this from a place of respect, collaboration and compassion (not fear) as I believe that is truly the only way humans will create a more sustainable world for all. 

Thank you’s 

A huge thank you to Maria Spies and Patrick Brothers for firstly founding HolonIQ and secondly creating such an amazing program with a world-class faculty. They are truly people connecters who understand the power of networks and the ‘new world’. 

A huge thank you to my fellow ‘global’ program participants who I learned so much from: Caroline Hartnett, Derrick Low, Doreen Tan, Felix Ohswald, Heith Mackay-Cruise, Jessica White, Krishna Kumar, Takai Mashiko, Nanapat Santisutham. Pakawat Tap, Soon-Joo Gog, Timothy Zhao, Touhami Abi, and Xiangcen Guo. 

I know we will see each other again someday as we all strive to play our part in global education!


China: number of universities 2018 | Statista. (2019). Retrieved 6 December 2019, from

China: number of students at elementary schools 2018 | Statista. (2019). Retrieved 6 December 2019, from

China: number of students at high schools 2018 | Statista. (2019). Retrieved 6 December 2019, from

Population by Country (2019) – Worldometers. (2019). Retrieved 6 December 2019, from

Writer’s Bio

Bianca is an experienced educator in K-12 and higher education. With a passion for learning design and online learning—she founded Oppida in 2019. Follow her on LinkedIn or be sure to visit her website here.

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