Disney quits language school in China, citing coronavirus

The Walt Disney Company decided to shut down Disney English, a chain of 25 language schools in China founded 12 years ago, ending a once promising venture that at times has raised questions about education as that brand building.

Learning centers, in six cities and using Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and the Little Mermaid in their curriculum, have been closed since late January, when the Chinese government began to make aggressive efforts to contain the coronavirus. Traditional schools were allowed to slowly reopen, but some further education centers, including Disney English, remained closed.

Mahesh Samat, Disney’s executive vice president for consumer marketing in the Asia-Pacific region, told parents on Monday in a letter that Disney English had made the “difficult decision” not to reopen. The channel was founded in 2008, when China’s rapidly growing middle class created increased demand for learning English. Disney developed the program in partnership with Columbia University.

“Over the past few years, we have noticed a shift in consumer preferences for online learning experiences and this trend has been accelerated by the global pandemic as families are reluctant to take additional in-person learning classes again.” Mr Samat said in the letter. . “We are proud of our award-winning Disney English Language Learning Program in China, which has welcomed over 100,000 learners. “

He added that Disney was “taking care of every” teacher affected by the decision but did not say how. Tuition fees paid in advance will be refunded. The learning centers, for children aged 2 to 12, charged about $ 2,000 per year for about 100 hours of instruction.

A spokeswoman for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, the corporate division that housed Disney English, declined to say how many students were enrolled or whether the centers were profitable. Disney noted that surveys of parents over the years have shown “consistently high satisfaction,” as have comments on Chinese social media sites after the announcement of the shutdown.

Disney English used characters and stories in its curriculum and in the school’s setting, leading some critics of the entertainment conglomerate to view the centers as less about teaching language skills and more about cultivating future customers. . Disney English was launched at a time when government limits on foreign media prevented Disney and other Hollywood studios from distributing movies and TV shows in China. Shanghai Disneyland was still years away from opening.

The idea of ​​learning centers as a sort of Trojan horse has always ruffled Disney executives. “We never saw this as an effort to teach the Disney brand and Disney characters,” Andy Mooney, then president of Disney Consumer Products, told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. “We decided to teach Chinese children English. Mr. Mooney left Disney in 2011.

As a business in itself, Disney English has never realized its potential. The company at a given time considered having around 150 sites in China by 2015 with an annual schooling of 150,000 children. Expansion to Brazil was discussed. Over time, those plans were canceled, in part because of the leadership changes at Disney. At one point, Chinese authorities changed teacher visa requirements, making staffing difficult. The government has also made it more difficult for private companies to obtain educational operating licenses.

Making money trying to make kids smarter has proven difficult for Disney over the years. A technology-driven learning initiative called Disney Imagicademy, which launched successfully in 2014, has not grown in popularity. And Disney sold the problematic Baby Einstein line of products in 2013.

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