HANGZHOU－Zheng Susu, an e-commerce lecturer for 15 years, is visibly confident when it comes to conducting her classes. However, she was caught by surprise and became anxious upon receiving an invitation to teach at a local prison.
In December 2017, Qiaosi Prison in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, sought to collaborate with Taobao University－an education unit under Chinese tech giant Alibaba, where Zheng works as a lecturer－to give lessons to the inmates.
The unique approach is aimed at teaching the inmates skills that can help them reintegrate into society. Before approaching Taobao University, the prison had already offered classes in auto repair and plumbing installation.
"We set up the courses so they can live a good life after returning to society," said Hu Di, an official with Qiaosi.
As the prison is in Hangzhou, where Alibaba is based and online businesses are booming, Hu came up with the idea of asking Taobao University to offer relevant courses.
Huang Lei, head of the university, attached great importance to Hu's request. "We were asked to help inmates learn more about the internet, but then we realized that teaching them certain skills could help them gain more opportunities in the future," he said.
In January 2018, Taobao University worked out a curriculum and signed an agreement with Qiaosi Prison. Zheng was chosen to be among the first batch of lecturers.
"When I put away my mobile phone and walked through the iron gates, I felt I was in another world," Zheng recalled.
Since her students were of various age groups and educational backgrounds, Zheng started by explaining fundamental concepts such as QR codes. She said she never considered teaching as "cracking a hard nut".
"Our students are quite interested in outside information. They have very strong desires to learn," she said.
Learning about e-commerce can boost inmates' confidence and help them earn their own living when they leave prison, thereby contributing to a stable and harmonious society, said Yang Jianhua, head of the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences.
By Dec 10, over 2,500 inmates at Qiaosi Prison had taken the e-commerce classes, and some of them went on to work on online sales of agricultural products in their hometowns while others established internet companies.
A former inmate surnamed Zhou, who attended six sessions of the e-commerce course, founded a company that offers services related to e-commerce after leaving prison.
"The classes in the prison made me understand the changes that are happening in the outside world and inspired me a lot," said Zhou, who served six years and nine months for illegally opening casinos.
After completing his prison term, Zhou continued to expand his knowledge by reading books and participating in offline training sessions, which allowed him to gain skills for effectively managing his company.
"The scariest thing about serving a sentence is abandoning yourself and the lack of a goal," said Zhou. "The training helped me find a new direction."
Huang, head of Taobao University, said it will forge further cooperation with drug rehabilitation centers, creating more job opportunities for people with special experiences.
"What we bring to them includes, but is not limited to, knowledge," he said. "Through these training classes, the inmates can regain their lost hopes."