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How online self-study rooms became a digital resort for China’s young examinees

It’s 10 pm on a Sunday evening and after coming home from a friend’s gathering, Zhao routinely checks in on an online self-study mobile app. There are several others like this that Zhao played around with before deciding to stick to this one, which is called CoStudy, where the 21-year-old postgraduate candidate (or 考kǎo研yán党dǎng in Chinese) has spent at least 3 hours per day over the past several months in preparation for her exams.

Inside the virtual study space

The app is set in an animated world, where the homepage recreates a virtual campus in a cartoon style with several teaching buildings in different designs such as European or traditional Chinese. On top of the page, a notice board held up by an avatar shows another 4,381 users have already entered the virtual study space.

A globe-shaped installation known as CoSpace sits right next to the teaching buildings, which is a virtual space for institutions. Qingbei Daoyuan, an online education service provider, is by far the only institution tenant, offering learning materials for middle and high school students. Pre-recorded teaching videos are also available at a digestible length between 3 and 20 minutes, which can be watched at one’s own pace.

In the other two sections, imaginative facilities for entertainment and lifestyle have been built to give users a place to wind down during their study break, which includes a convenience store, communal and customised accommodation, a Culture Palace, and a market where users can shop anything from digital clothing and accessories to home furniture. Just a stone’s throw away, there is an open-air space for some after studying.

Zhao’s fictional avatar enters an ordinary study room rather than an exclusive one, which is a themed space. She has been low on funds after purchasing an outfit for her avatar and used almost all of her savings – coins which are awarded for each successful completion of a self-study session. The higher the focus mode level one chooses and the longer it lasts, the more coins one will earn. Zhao then settles into a seat and sets an hour of “Focus Time” for herself to do some reading. In the same virtual study room, there have already been over 60 users, and another 50 in the online classroom next door with “Focus Times” ranging from 1 to 2 hours for activities, including revision, homework, and reviewing lectures.

“I like the atmosphere there,” said Zhao in an interview with Dao Insights, “seeing others focus on their study and not checking phones motivates me and helps me to control myself, and not be distracted by social media.”

Tapping into the digital transformation

As a digital extension of traditional self-study rooms, the online provision has been thriving in China in the past couple of years. Chinese Gen Zers are no strangers to the concept of self-study rooms, which were initially a campus invention with classrooms serving its purpose when there were no lectures.

Self-study rooms are highly sought after by students, as well as early-career workers and entrepreneurs who seek self-development.

However, with the competition escalating for some of China’s most-registered exams such as the Postgraduate Admission Test, Civil Servant Entrance Examination and other qualification exams, on-campus facilities no longer fulfill the demands. This has resulted in private businesses springing up to offer alternatives, which have been highly sought after by high school and university students, as well as early-career workers and entrepreneurs who seek self-development.

It was reported that approximately 1,000 paid study rooms were set up across the country in 2019 with cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Xi’an housing most of these study lounges, as per the state media People’s Daily. And this service continued to gain steam in the following year with online searches for shared study rooms recording a 10-fold surge year-on-year in 2020, according to Meituan, a Chinese service-focused e-commerce platform.


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