2023 Student Research Project | EdTech Startups and Education Inequality: the Case of Onion Academy

Supervisor: Fangsheng Zhu, Assistant Professor of Sociology

Student Researcher

Hanyang Zhou shows passion for education equity, social mobility, gender equality, as well as digital sociology. Currently a sophomore, Hanyang intends to major in Computation & Design / Social Policy, Anthropology, or Sociology. Working as a research assistant for Prof. Fangsheng Zhu, Hanyang delved into the EdTech industry, with a focus on inclusive education.

About the Project

Education Technology (EdTech) is rapidly reshaping existing education and holds promise for reducing educational inequality. While the existing literature on EdTech focuses on technological and theoretical evaluations, it overlooks EdTech startups and their interactions with multiple stakeholders. This research investigates how the mission for inclusive education and contextual systems shape EdTech companies’ practices in China, with a specific focus on K-12 education. We employed a case study of Onion Academy, to uncover the role of EdTech companies in education empowerment via business-to-business interactions. Drawing from interdisciplinary studies and diverse materials, our research revealed the implementation of EdTech was contingent on school systems, heavily involving teachers as mediators. While Onion Academy manifested its goal as empowering students’ independent learning and critical thinking, in practice teachers instead of students were the main users of the product. This uncovers a mismatch between the intended design purposes and actual implementation.

Our study bridges a significant research gap between theoretical evaluations and real-world EdTech practices, regarding inclusive education in China. Future inquiry will investigate EdTech startups’ practices in other business models, especially their impacts on the contemporary school-teaching structure. This exploration will provide new perspectives for promoting education equality.