Learning Curve

China is betting big on the potential of artificial intelligence to revolutionize education.

A newly published MIT Technology Review story details how the nation is embracing AI as both a replacement and a supplement to human teachers — and the outcome of the country’s AI experiment could affect the future of education on a global scale.

AI Teachers

From algorithms that curate tutoring lessons to surveillance systems that monitor classroom progress, tens of millions of Chinese students currently rely on some sort of AI to help them learn, MIT Tech reports, with three elements factoring into AI-powered education’s ability to thrive in China.

For one, the nation has made it a point to incentivize such efforts through tax breaks. Then there’s the fact that education is already something of a competitive sport in China, with students — and their parents — willing to try anything that might increase their test scores even slightly.

Finally, the people developing these AIs have a wealth of data available for training purposes as China places less of an emphasis on individual data privacy than many other developed countries.

Graduation Day

While tens of millions of students is a lot, it’s just a fraction of China’s 200 million elementary and high school students.

However, if these early experiments with AI education produce the kinds of longterm educational benefits China is hoping for, they could become a standard way of teaching in the nation — and eventually, even beyond its borders.

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 coauthored 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.

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