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Artificial intelligence

China’s tiger moms (and dads) drive demand for online education

STEM education is the next big thing in China after learning English amid the country’s push to become a global powerhouse in artificial intelligence

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2017, 6:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2017, 2:32pm

For a five year old, Wu Tianye has a lot on her plate. Besides her regular kindergarten classes, she practises ice skating to keep fit, is learning painting and music to develop an artistic side, and regularly chats online with a US-based teacher to maintain her American-accented English.

As if that was not enough, her father has squeezed another activity into her busy schedule – a STEM course designed to teach the basics of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Costing 200 yuan (US$30) per session, the course combines Lego building blocks with software-based projects so children can do their own programming and build functional toy robots and machines.

“I don’t expect my daughter to make a living by coding in the future, but I want to prepare her for a world where humans will inevitably work with robots and interact with machines. It will be the top skill for the era of artificial intelligence,” said the father, Wu Yunhe, who works in advertising in China’s capital of Beijing.

STEM education was created in the United States but has become increasingly popular in China as Chinese “tiger parents” spend what it takes to give their children a head start in computer science amid the country’s national drive for worldwide domination in technology fields ranging from big data to artificial intelligence.

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The STEM education market in China is currently worth around 9.6 billion yuan (US$1.4 billion) and is expected to grow to 52 billion yuan within five years, according to Soochow Securities, which based its projection on the assumption that 4 per cent of Chinese students under the age of 18 will take part in these courses.

Industry insiders believe the STEM market will see a big boost after the country’s artificial intelligence development road map released in July aims to make AI-related courses available in primary and middle school education and equip Chinese students with coding skills.

“I think the demand for coding education in China will be just like the demand for English learning education,” said Li Tianchi, founder and chief executive of Shenzhen Dianmao Technology, which offers online coding classes to students mostly aged between six and 16. “Mastering English is a basic skill required in the era of globalisation while coding will become the basic skill in the era of artificial intelligence.”

“Tiger moms”, or Tiger parents when the father is included, is a term that describes the pushy, high expectation parenting style that became controversial after Yale professor Amy Chua’s controversial 2010 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The book, which defends the strict, Chinese parenting stereotypes of the mother pushing her children to reach high levels of academic achievement, gained wide support in China, with 55 per cent of respondents to a 2011 survey by China Youth Daily’s social research centre seeing merit in Chua’s parenting style.

China has nearly 300 million people taking part in English language training, a huge industry that includes foreign teachers, training organisations for both kids and adults, and overseas summer camps. The market has created many unicorns – private start-ups valued at more than US$1 billion – including online English teaching firm VipKid, and a number of publicly traded education giants, such as New York-listed New Oriental.

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Dianmao Technology, founded in 2015, raised an additional 120 million yuan in a B round of funding led by Hillhouse Capital in November. Known in China by the name Codemao, it began offering paid online courses in June and has gained more than 30,000 paid customers so far. The courses offered by Li’s firm teach students how to design their own online games and even produce their own apps.

“Less than 1 per cent of students from kindergarten to the 12th grade in China learn coding. The penetration rate is very low compared with those who study English, therefore the potential of the market is huge,” he said.

Liu Yang, founder and chief executive of iMarsClub, the largest bricks-and-mortar STEM education provider in Beijing, said a two-hour session costing 300 yuan to 400 yuan is “nothing” for middle-class parents in the city.

“We don’t need to educate the market any more, most of the parents understand why it is important to make their kids study STEM courses,” said Liu, who established the company three years ago.

This year iMarsClub has 2,000 paying students for its offline courses and Liu expects to double that to 4,000 in 2018. This doesn’t include the sale of the company’s online courses and DIY robot products.

Despite the buzz, the market is still quite small compared to the US$42.5 billion revenue from China’s overall online education industry.

“Since STEM hasn’t officially been added to the curriculum in China’s school education system, most parents consider it as a ‘dessert’, nothing like the main courses such as English or mathematics, which are must-test subjects needed to get into a good university,” said Liu.

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Among iMarsClub students, about 80 per cent of parents of the third and fourth grade pupils said they will sign their kids up for another year after the first year course ends, according to the company. But only 1 per cent of fifth and sixth grade parents will make their children continue in the face of the additional pressure to get into a good middle school.

Wu, who personally chose the STEM course for his five-year-old daughter, does not see himself as a tiger father. “The training sessions for my daughter are designed to encourage her to explore her interest, not for getting high scores in exams,” he said.

The prospects of rapid growth in STEM education have attracted a growing number of new entrants, especially after wealthy Jiangsu province conducted a pilot this year to encourage kindergartens and schools to teach STEM courses, a sign that they may be included in the official national school curriculum in the future.

Vipjr, a Shanghai-based online English education provider, introduced online programming courses earlier this year to expand into STEM education.

“The competition in STEM education is fierce with a lot of companies rushing into the industry over the past two years,” said Wang Jianjun, chief executive and founder of Shenzhen-based Makeblock, one of China’s largest DIY robot makers. “Dozens of Chinese start-ups simply copy our robotic products,” he said, adding that the company has to quickly upgrade its products to protect itself from copycats.

“There is no industry-wide standard in STEM education and the shortage of qualified teachers is another challenge,” he said.

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Kimmy Chen, a 14-year old Qingdao participant in Make X, a national Robotics Challenge staged by Makeblock in Shenzhen last month, said his teacher was not a professional robot maker.

“He only started to learn how to make a robot and how to programme it after he was given the task to help us for the competition,” he said.

It is not just qualified STEM teachers that China is short of. The country’s demand for all kinds of AI-related professionals may surge to 5 million in a few years, according to a People’s Daily report, citing Zhou Ming, an education vice-director at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

Data from job networking platform LinkedIn showed that China had just over 50,000 technology professionals working in the AI-related sector as of March, which means roughly nine out of 10 AI positions advertised on the mainland go unfilled.

Meanwhile, five-year-old Wu Tianye has not shown any interest in science or engineering despite doing the Lego STEM course for half a year, though her father said he was not giving up yet.

“About one third of our monthly income goes to educating our child. Everything in Asia is about competition, including being a parent,” he said.