China wants to bring artificial intelligence to its classrooms to boost its education system

How the take off of AI-enabled education will affect the interaction between China’s 14 million teachers and 188 million pupils

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 October, 2017, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 October, 2017, 1:49pm

For Peter Cao, who has dedicated 16 years of his career to teaching chemistry in a high school in central China’s Anhui province, in every teacher there lives a “doctor”.

He spends two to three hours a day grading assignments, ­a process the 38-year-old describes as “diagnosing”.

“By reviewing the homework of my pupils, I can have an overall picture about their understanding of the lessons I give,” Cao said, adding that this “diagnosis” helps him draw up a teaching plan for the following day.

But if the Chinese online education start-up Master Learner has its way, Cao and his 14 million fellow teachers in China will be able to hand this time-consuming review process to a “super teacher”, a powerful “brain” capable of answering nearly 500 million of the most tested questions in China’s middle schools as well as scoring high points in each Gaokao test, China’s life-changing college entrance exam, for the past 30 years.

If the super teacher sounds too smart to be human, that is because it is not. It is an artificial intelligence -powered education platform developed by Master Learner’s 300 engineers, trained using the hundreds of millions of maths, physics and chemistry questions faced by China’s middle school pupils everyday.

“It used to be very difficult to have both efficiency and quality in education. With AI, we can make it happen,” said Zhang Kailei, the founder and chief executive of Shanghai-based Master Learner, which has a valuation of more than US$100 million.

The Chinese government has made AI-enabled education a national strategy, a part of an AI development road map that aims to make the country a global centre of AI innovation by 2030, according to a government plan released by China’s State Council in July.

Education has emerged as one of the hottest verticals for the application of AI in China. According to market research firm IT Juzi, it ranks third after medicine and automobiles among industries that have witnessed the most changes brought on by AI.

Zhang’s start-up is one of a growing number of Chinese online education companies that are increasingly looking to AI to upend traditional classrooms, reaching more people with an offer of higher quality education and better efficiency in a country where the best education resources and teachers have so far only been accessed by children from well-off families in big cities.

Hujiang, one of the largest online education sites in China, is working to utilise image recognition and voice recognition to capture student’s facial expression and feedback to improve the interaction between pupils and teachers in online classes.

Analysts and business insiders say AI is an inevitable step in the development of education in China, a country that has 188 million pupils in schools.

“AI will improve China’s education industry. With changes in knowledge delivery channels, patterns and content, it realises cost reduction and efficiency improvement,” said Roger Chung, a senior manager at Deloitte Research specialising in telecommunications, media and technology.

Chung said a major issue that the Chinese education system faces is the uneven distribution of resources. “Good teachers and schools are concentrated in metropolitan areas, while education resources in rural areas suffers.

“ Through adaptive learning technologies, intelligent learning management systems and the like, pupils can get online resources, reduce their dependence on teachers and at the same time obtain personalised education services,” he said.

“Reducing costs has been a challenge for the traditional education industry with rising labour expenses, not to mention that good teachers are rare in China,” said Ben Hu, a Shanghai-based entrepreneur whose start-up is banking on technologies to solve this problem.

After spending years training an AI system that can analyse pupils’ learning habits and tailor English learning programmes based on an individual’s demands, Hu’s company, which has an Al-enabled English learning app called Liulishuo, can teach as many pupils as possible with only one AI teacher – an approach that is able to provide affordable education to more people.

Hu, Liulishuo’s chief technology officer, said his company is able to stay profitable while offering a year-long course for 966 yuan (US$146.8)) thanks to 600,000 paid customers.

“With our AI system, we can make our training fee as cheap as drinking a Coke everyday for a year. If you look at traditional English training schools in China, the fee for a year usually stands at 30,000 yuan,” he said.

To make sure children in rural areas can also embrace this innovation, China’s Education Ministry has required governments at all levels to spend no less than 8 per cent of their annual funding on digitalisation of education. In 2016, an estimated 300 billion yuan was invested in China on digitalisation.

About 73 million out of the 76 million middle schools in China have access to the internet, according to Master Learner’s Zhang. “This has laid a solid foundation for the take off of AI-enabled education in China,” he said.

“With the help of AI, teachers are able to provide more personalised education as the machine can help them identifyconcepts pupils are not comprehending in almost real time,” said Zhang.

“With better efficiency, top teachers in good schools will have the time to take care of more pupils, even those in remote areas in China,” he said, adding the company’s AI learning services have been tested over the past year in more than 100 classes across China and are expected to expand to 1,000 classes by then end of the year.