Op-ed: China's elderly pose new challenges for e-commerce and e-learning

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Op-ed: China's elderly pose new challenges for e-commerce and e-learning

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Researchers Fan Zhang, Yiqin He and Florian Kohlbacher from the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS) at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou explain older Chinese people’s attitudes towards e-commerce and e-learning and the resulting business opportunities in China’s aging society.

The ascent of e-commerce and the graying of China's population are two phenomena that receive plenty of attention in isolation—and justly so, as evidence for both is ample and undeniable.

As of the end of 2014, the value of online shopping transactions reached RMB2.8 trillion, a 51.4% rise compared with 2013. E-banking is experiencing similar levels of growth. By the end of July 2014, the e-banking transaction amount hit RMB8.96 trillion, a 30.04% increase from a year earlier. While the consumer group aged 20 to 29 accounts for more than half of all internet shoppers, more older Chinese people are joining e-shopping activities. With rapid population aging in China, this trend is likely to accelerate.  

Yet while little work has been done to date seeking to understand how these two key trends intersect, there is every reason to believe that more and more of the country's elderly will look to online commerce – and we believe, increasingly, online education – as they seek out benefits both material and intellectual for themselves.

Elderly Chinese people who lived through the most tumultuous periods of the 20th century are often interested in making the best of their twilight years by pursuing experiences they missed out on during those disruptive times. Happily, rapid advancements in technology are allowing older Chinese citizens to engage with friends, family, and the community at large in ways that were once unfathomable.

The Chinese saying "live till old age, learn till old age" (活到老学到老) encourages people to continue their studies long after they've left school. A recent study we conducted revealed that this maxim does indeed hold true: In our in-depth interviews with more than 32 older people, we found that nearly all participants believed lifelong learning is vital for individuals. To make this possible, the Chinese government is working on providing a more elderly-friendly environment to improve older people’s quality of life. By 2013, there were more than 40,000 universities established throughout the country for the sole purpose of educating elderly citizens, the majority of which had been funded by the central government.

Whereas traditional universities only accept students with high school diplomas and certain college entrance examination scores, senior citizen universities have dispensed with any exclusive prerequisites. In addition, the universities provide courses specifically directed towards an elderly population that may have missed out on certain educational opportunities.

E-learning is another venue for education that holds promise for students both young and old - and investors. Current e-learning services for older generations are provided in the form of online versions of traditional universities. These online universities are typically created, supported and maintained by their offline counterparts, and their functions often lack in innovation and marketization. But that suggests there is a substantial potential market for education - including e-learning services - for older people in China.

Although an increasing number of elderly people in China are participating in e-commerce, not all have a passion for online shopping and e-banking. Older consumers are a diverse group, and to better understand  them we conducted in-depths interviews with older couples to explore their attitudes towards e-commerce. Our study examined a variety of incentives and barriers to using online services such as self-efficacy, perceived ease of use, perceived usefulness, technical support, and social support. We found there are three types of older e-shoppers:

Advanced users have very positive attitudes towards online shopping and e-banking, find it easy and convenient to shop online and prefer buying goods on the Internet because of lower prices, convenient delivery service and a wider range of products. Mrs. Shi, 61, said that she prefers to buy heavy things online because she is too old to carry them. Mrs. Su, 50, said, “Actually, using this device can reduce service expenses. And otherwise, you need to wait in a queue. I think that's praiseworthy.”. Overall, this group of advances older users typically believes online shopping will become the dominant way to purchase goods. This is why we expect them to become the main drivers of e-service consumption in China’s greying market.

Indirect users have found it difficult to learn how to use computers and navigate the Internet, but are still interested in using online services to buy goods or pay bills and instead rely on family and friends for help. Take the case of Mrs. Zhu, 57: “It [not using online shopping] is mainly because nobody teaches me. (…) She [my daughter] has taught me before but I forget it. (…) She taught me once. Afterwards, I didn’t get used to it. But I think it will be convenient if I get used to it.” Or Mr. Zhu, 59: ““I looked at them [the products] online. Then I asked someone else to help me to buy them online.”

Non-users believe online shopping and e-banking lack financial security and prefer to shop at physical locations where they are more comfortable. Mr. Wang, 52, said online shopping wasn't convenient when buying groceries. Non-users generally are not comfortable with learning how to navigate the Internet and spend money online, though not every non-user has a negative opinion of e-commerce. Some would be willing to use online services, but stress they would need proper, patient guidance.

In another study we looked at older people’s attitudes towards e-learning. Previous studies in other countries have categorized the educational needs of older people into three types: Leisure, vocational and self-improvement. Many available e-learning services are designed to train employees, and some older users’ adoption of e-learning services was required by their jobs and usually related to professional knowledge and skills.   

Our study also found that elderly citizens were much less likely to cite "leisure or self-improvement" as the primary reason for using e-learning services. But respondents frequently reported that they were pursuing education at physical elderly education university locations. They believed that e-learning services did not offer the same level of quality indicating that it is still difficult for e-learning to complete with classic in-class education at a university for the elderly. E-learning providers need to reconsider how they can offer their services in a way that offers a value-added over in-class teaching.

What do older people really want to obtain through education? We found that in addition to knowledge and skills, many interviewees valued the opportunity to socialize. Attending classes at a physical campus facilitates interaction with others, while e-learning services are currently unable to offer similar opportunities for communication and friendship. Mrs. Qin, 78, explained that her senior education classes had "a unique atmosphere. People can communicate and share interesting things." Similarly, Mrs. He, 77, said that “there is the lack of interaction… e-learning is done at home with little communication”.

At this stage, due to either technological limitations or the lack of ability to use the required technology, e-learning cannot provide interaction and communication opportunities as effectively as traditional classroom education. We therefore expect that integrating instant communication technology will be necessary in the design of e-learning services for older people. As if to drive the importance of socializing home, Mrs. Yang, 77, explained that “it’s more than having lessons, we also travel together… we've maintained contact for almost ten years. We always talk and share secrets.” 

E-learning service providers need to identify what really matters to older users, and can learn most from the structure of existing universities for the elderly—possibly even integrating offline activities or services to expand their consumer base. For both the e-learning industry and its customers, this is, after all, a learning process. 

Fan Zhang is a recent graduate of the MSc Management program at the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS) at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou.

Yiqin He is a recent graduate of the BSc Information Management and Information Systems program at the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS) at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou.

Florian Kohlbacher is an associate professor of marketing and innovation at the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS) at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou. He is an internationally renowned expert on business and consumer trends in Asia.


Editor: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)