Here is How AI is Bringing Equality to Education in China

Zhang Zihang, a 12-year-old boy with the unique English name Rice, made his way to the stage of the third international conference on AI and Adaptive Education. He was the only kid who delivered a speech in English on that sultry day at the end of May. He talked about a variety of topics, one of which was his dream of becoming a space scientist. A dream, it seems, so sincere that his mother went as far as to sign him up for a NASA space camp in Huntsville, Alabama, U.S., where he befriended a lot of Americans.

“Did you guys notice the shirt I was wearing? You’re right, it’s an MIT shirt. And after that, my mom took me on a tour around MIT. They have a lot of robots, and I really like them. I’m not that crazy about Harvard though, because they don’t have much about science.”

“It was a very fruitful experience for me, both mentally and physically. They had those special facilities to simulate non-gravity environment in space,” he said when asked if it had been a good experience.

Zhang Zihang (source: Squirrel AI)

Based on his scores, he might not be the top student in class, but when it comes to fascinating experiences he’s on the level that not many adults could reach.

AI plus learning

Zhang’s mother is a friend of Li Haoyang, the CEO and founder of Squirrel AI. The company is an online course provider that aims to optimize students’ daily learning sessions through AI adaptive learning engine and one of the few companies that specializes in intelligent adaptive education in China. The company just attracted as much as one billion yuan in its series A funding last October. During the conference, the company announced that it would be annually donating one million dollars to award AI scientists who make significant contributions in this field. The cognitive tutoring system aims to use AI to help kids target their knowledge gaps accurately, figure out the root causes of test failures and make study plans. Every kid registered on the platform receives individualized teaching suggestions of which 70% is compiled by an AI assistant and the remaining 30% by human teachers.

The CEO himself is a passionate educator as well as an entrepreneur, who is eager to experiment on his two twin sons. The eight-year-olds are already taking Squirrel AI courses. They are allowed to play with an Ipad for an hour or two every day.

According to Li, “in terms of algorithms, we’d hope to analyze students’ user portraits, getting to know every student’s situation. We’d also want to do deductions like Jinri Toutiao, and have a predictive engine. We can optimize our algorithms by constantly gathering data, possibly children’s expressions and gestures in the future.”

“What’s different in China is here they have a massive amount of data that can be gathered,” says Professor Tom Mitchell from Carnegie Mellon University, known for his contributions to machine learning, artificial intelligence, and cognitive neuroscience. He also notes that brain science is a very important technology that can influence adaptive teaching. There is also a brain imaging technology that can detect brain waves, display brain activity, and track the emotional state of students. However, at the moment, these technologies only exist either in theory or in laboratories.

Escaping the test system

“The major problem for Chinese education is that we should lessen the burden for the kids,” China’s minister of education said during this year’s Two Sessions. In his opinion there should be less pressure, less cram schools and optimized exam ratings in China. Yet, under China’s current circumstances, this system still proves to be more or less effective and is likely to persist for some time, even though it is detrimental to personal development

A high school graduate from Shanghai who also spoke at the event had a strong opinion on this issue, “the input doesn’t match the output if you focus on pushing your scores from 90 to 100. The energy used for these ten points could be put elsewhere.” Having studied at both regular and international high schools, he also spoke about different score rating systems. He is planning to attend a program at Minerva Schools, that sends students to seven countries within a span of four years. “After that, you will definitely feel that you achieved something higher,” he told the media, adding that his dream is to become a freelance musician.

high school student from Shanghai speaking at the event (source: Squirrel AI)

No doubt, in order to escape the system, one needs resources and an open vision. Over the years, STEAM education has been gaining influence, but China’s awareness still seems rather limited compared with the U.S.. There are Chinese companies that are making impressive strides in this domain. Makeblock, a robotics company, is making robots that help primary school kids learn basic coding. The MIT designed system called Scratch is transferable to Python, but displays coding using AI and IoT technologies that even nine-year-olds could understand. Nevertheless, nowadays over 70% of Makeblock’s income comes from overseas markets. Learning to code and program at a younger age may enable kids to excel in creative and non-linear thinking, but that doesn’t mean they can escape the standardized tests in China’s current schooling system. The anxiety for pushing the score from 90 to 100 still exists and will exist as long as the rating system of schools remains unaltered.

Utilizing technology for equality

The combination of technology and education is all about equality. Last year, webcast online courses enabled 248 schools in poverty-stricken areas to gain access to top-level education provided by Chengdu No. 7 High School. Thanks to streaming services, rural students can now watch lectures live together with students from Chengdu.

However, education varies from region to region and these large gaps are not easy to erase, not even by a large webcast screen from a renowned high school. Take English for example, kids who’ve been immersed in the language environment tend to learn the language much quicker. Yet, such education comes at a cost, usually around 2000 to 3000 Chinese yuan per month, which is at least 20,000 to 30,000 yuan per year just for English.

And certainly not every kid can get an opportunity to go to NASA summer camp and peek at zero-gravity spaceships, nor can every high school graduate just skip college entrance exams and choose to go to Hong Kong or America. It is obvious that those growing up in more privileged families will get more opportunities if not more chances to succeed in the future.

The combination of AI and human tutoring could provide students of all backgrounds with an opportunity to escape the classic “assembly line” sort of education system. AI is duplicatable at a lower cost, and is unaffected by time and location. With the advent of AI, soon enough even those in the most poverty-stricken areas could be able to enjoy the same tutoring experience as urban kids but at an affordable price, but we’ve still got a long way to go to achieve that goal.

Featured photo credit to Squirrel AI