In recent years, the country has rushed to pursue “intelligent education.” Now its billion-dollar ed-tech companies are planning to export their vision overseas.
Zhou Yi was terrible at math. He risked never getting into college. Then a company called Squirrel AI came to his middle school in Hangzhou, China, promising personalized tutoring. He had tried tutoring services before, but this one was different: instead of a human teacher, an AI algorithm would curate his lessons. The 13-year-old decided to give it a try. By the end of the semester, his test scores had risen from 50% to 62.5%. Two years later, he scored an 85% on his final middle school exam.
“I used to think math was terrifying,” he says. “But through tutoring, I realized it really isn’t that hard. It helped me take the first step down a different path.”
Experts agree AI will be important in 21st-century education – but how? While academics have puzzled over best practices, China hasn’t waited around. In the last few years, the country’s investment in AI-enabled teaching and learning has exploded. Tech giants, startups, and education incumbents have all jumped in. Tens of millions of students now use some form of AI to learn-whether through extracurricular tutoring programs like Squirrel’s, through digital learning platforms like 17ZuoYe, or even in their main classrooms. It’s the world’s biggest experiment on AI in education, and no one can predict the outcome.
Silicon Valley is also keenly interested. In a report in March, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation identified AI as an educational tool worthy of investment. In his 2018 book Rewiring Education, John Couch, Apple’s vice president of education, lauded Squirrel AI. (A Chinese version of the book is co-authored by Squirrel’s founder, Derek Li.) Squirrel also opened a joint research lab with Carnegie Mellon University this year to study personalized learning at scale, then export it globally.
But experts worry about the direction this rush to AI in education is taking. At best, they say, AI can help teachers foster their students’ interests and strengths. At worst, it could further entrench a global trend toward standardized learning and testing, leaving the next generation ill-prepared to adapt in a rapidly changing world of work.
As one of the largest AI education companies in China, Squirrel highlights this tension. And as one of the best-poised to spread overseas, it offers a window into how China’s experiments could shape the rest of the world.
The learning center that Zhou attends, one of the first that Squirrel opened, occupies the second floor of an unassuming building on a busy commercial road in Hangzhou, a second-tier city in Zhejiang province. Company awards line the walls in the stairwell. Further in, large photographs of at least a dozen men are on display: half of them are Squirrel AI’s executives and the others are master teachers, a title bestowed on the best teachers in China, who help develop the company’s curriculum.
The school’s interior decorations are modest. The foyer is small and colorful with lime-green accents. Photos of smiling students hang along the corridor between six or so classrooms. Inside, faded decals of trees and simple mottos like “Be humble” enliven the walls. There are no whiteboards, projectors, or other equipment-just one table per room, meant for six to eight people.
The vehicle of instruction is the laptop. Students and teachers alike stare intently at screens. In one room, two students wear headsets, engrossed in an English tutoring session. In another, three students, including Zhou, take three separate math classes. They work out practice problems on pieces of paper before submitting their answers online. In each room, a teacher monitors the students through a real-time dashboard.
At different points, both teachers notice something on their screen that prompts them to walk over and kneel by a student’s chair. They speak in hushed tones, presumably to answer a question the tutoring system can’t resolve. Though I’m just feet away, I can’t distinguish their words above the soft hum of traffic on the street below.
“It’s so quiet,” I whisper to the small gang of school and company staff assembled for my tour. The Hangzhou regional director smiles with what I interpret as a hint of pride: “There are no sounds of teachers lecturing.”
Three things have fueled China’s AI education boom. The first is tax breaks and other incentives for AI ventures that improve anything from student learning to teacher training to school management. For VCs, this means such ventures are good bets. According to one estimate, China led the way in over $1 billion invested globally last year in AI education.
Second, academic competition in China is fierce. Ten million students a year take the college entrance exam, the gaokao. Your score determines whether and where you can study for a degree, and it’s seen as the biggest determinant of success for the rest of your life. Parents willingly pay for tutoring or anything else that helps their children get ahead.
Finally, Chinese entrepreneurs have masses of data at their disposal to train and refine their algorithms. The population is vast, people’s views on data privacy are much laxer than in the West (especially if they can get coveted benefits like academic performance in return), and parents are big believers in the potential of technology, having seen how much it has transformed the country in just a few decades.
Squirrel focuses on helping students score better on annual standardized tests, which taps straight into national gaokao anxiety; more than 80% of its students return year after year, it says. It also designed its system to capture ever more data from the beginning, which has made possible all kinds of personalization and prediction experiments. It heavily markets its technical capabilities through academic publications, international collaborations, and awards, which has made it a darling of the Shanghai local government.
The strategy has fueled mind-boggling growth. In the five years since it was founded, the company has opened 2,000 learning centers in 200 cities and registered over a million students-equal to New York City’s entire public school system. It plans to expand to 2,000 more centers domestically within a year. To date, the company has also raised over $180 million in funding. At the end of last year, it gained unicorn status, surpassing $1 billion in valuation.
Squirrel isn’t the first company to pursue the concept of an AI tutor. The earliest efforts to “replicate” teachers dating back to the 1970s when computers first started being used in education. Then, between 1982 and 1984, several studies in the US showed that students who received one-on-one human tutoring performed far better than students who didn’t. This set off a new wave of efforts to re-create that kind of individual attention in a machine. The result was adaptive learning systems, which can now be found everywhere from kindergartens to workplace training centers.
Squirrel’s innovation is in its granularity and scale. For every course it offers, its engineering team works with a group of master teachers to subdivide the subject into the smallest possible conceptual pieces. Middle school math, for example, is broken into over 10,000 atomic elements, or “knowledge points,” such as rational numbers, the properties of a triangle, and the Pythagorean theorem. The goal is to diagnose a student’s gaps in understanding as precisely as possible. By comparison, a textbook might divide the same subject into 3,000 points; ALEKS, an adaptive learning platform developed by US-based McGraw-Hill, which inspired Squirrel’s, divides it into roughly 1,000.
Once the knowledge points are set, they are paired with video lectures, notes, worked examples, and practice problems. Their relationships how they build on each other and overlap are encoded in a “knowledge graph,” also based on the master teachers’ experience.
A student begins a course of study with a short diagnostic test to assess how well she understands key concepts. If she correctly answers an early question, the system will assume she knows related concepts and skips ahead. Within 10 questions, the system has a rough sketch of what she needs to work on and uses it to build a curriculum. As she studies, the system updates its model of her understanding and adjusts the curriculum accordingly. As more students use the system, it spots previously unrealized connections between concepts. The machine-learning algorithms then update the relationships in the knowledge graph to take these new connections into account. While ALEKS does some of this as well, Squirrel claims that its machine-learning optimizations are more limited, making it, in theory, less effective.
Squirrel has offered some validation of its system. In October 2017, for example, a self-funded four-day study with 78 middle school students found that the system was better on average at lifting math test scores than experienced teachers teaching a dozen or so kids in a traditional classroom.
The students I speak to at the learning center have high praise for the tutoring program as well. All are finishing middle school and have been coming to the center for more than a year. One girl, Fu Weiyi, tells me she’s improved far faster than when she got individual tutoring from a human teacher. “Here, I have a teacher both on and offline,” she says. “Plus, the instruction is very targeted; the system can directly identify the gaps in my understanding.” Another student echoes the sentiment: “With the system, you don’t have to do tons of exercises, but it’s still effective. It really saves time.”
While I have to take their words with a grain of salt the students are hand-picked and give their testimonials under intense supervision, I’m still touched by their relief that they’ve found a formula that works to ameliorate the often brutal academic environment. Zhou Yi’s story, perhaps not coincidentally, also neatly illustrates how Squirrel can help struggling students.
For Squirrel’s founder Li, this vision doesn’t stop at tutoring. He has ambitions to break out of the confines of after-school programming and integrate his curriculum directly into the main classroom. Squirrel is already in discussion with several schools in China to make its system the primary method of instruction.
I try to imagine what this world might be like and whether we might be better off for it. I ask the students one last question: Is there anything that Squirrel could improve? A long pause. Then: “I wish we had more interaction with our human teachers,” Fu says.
A teacher helping a student via video as part of Squirrel’s new remote tutoring program | Noah Sheldon.
Every educational expert I spoke to for this story began by making the same point: to understand how AI could improve teaching and learning, you need to think about how it is reshaping the nature of work.
As machines become better at rote tasks, humans will need to focus on the skills that remain unique to them: creativity, collaboration, communication, and problem-solving. They will also need to adapt quickly as more and more skills fall prey to automation. This means the 21st-century classroom should bring out the strengths and interests of each person, rather than impart a canonical set of knowledge more suited for the industrial age.
AI, in theory, could make this easier. It could take over certain rote tasks in the classroom, freeing teachers up to pay more attention to each student. Hypotheses differ about what that might look like. Perhaps AI will teach certain kinds of knowledge while humans teach others; perhaps it will help teachers keep track of student performance or give students more control over how they learn. Regardless, the ultimate goal is deeply personalized teaching.
Source: Technology ReviewRelated posts: