Online educator iTutorGroup sees stronger demand for English education amid Japan’s tourism boom

by Cory Baird

Staff Writer

Although iTutorGroup has turned into one of the largest online marketplaces of learning in the world, earning itself a $1 billion valuation along the way, the company can trace its roots back to the pre-internet age, when English tutoring was restricted to face-to-face interaction.

When CEO Dr. Eric Yang first got into the education sector in the early 1990s, he would create a list of characteristics for each English learner in order to personalize the material.

Taking his customization to the next level, Dr. Yang would go on to successfully launch an online English service in China in 2004, bringing his uniquely crafted lessons into the digital age.

Now iTutorGroup has more than 20,000 registered teachers and delivers online and interactive lessons using video and real-time conversation exercises. In addition to English, students from around the world can take courses in math, Mandarin and computer programing.

“The interesting thing about Japan is that our second-biggest market in the country after Tokyo is Hokkaido. I think a lot of people want to learn there because one of the main parts of the local economy is tourism,” Dr. Yang said during a recent interview at the company’s Tokyo office.

The firm launched vipabc, its English language learning platform, for the Japanese market in August 2016. The company’s Japanese investors, including Cyberagent Inc. and SBI Holdings Inc., played a role in its expansion to Japan — its first market outside China.

Japan was also an attractive market because of Dr. Yang’s personal connection to the country, having spent one year teaching at the University of Tokyo in the early 1990s after he earned his Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States.

The English language instructors at iTutorGroup all possess teaching certifications and, according to Dr. Yang, its pricing remains more affordable than its brick and mortar competitors.

Dr. Yang said he sees a strong demand for online English education as more tourists flock here in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

And it’s no secret that many tourists struggle with the language barrier. According to a January 2017 survey conducted by Recruit Lifestyle Co., tourists most often cite the inability to communicate with locals as a negative aspect of their travels in Japan.

While many Japanese students spend over six years studying the language at school, the country still lags behind its Asian neighbors in English education.

The average score for Japanese nationals on the 2016 Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) was lower than China, South Korea and Taiwan, according to the Educational Testing Service, the company that creates the test.

“Most Japanese people learn English in a linear fashion starting from chapter one and moving onward,” Dr. Yang said. Online learning, on the other hand, can be more easily customized to individual users.

Dr. Yang also noted that iTutorGroup was eyeing an expansion of its services to South Korea, and eventually other regions, including Latin America. He hopes to take the company public sometime around 2020.