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
A physics teacher made 18,842 yuan ($2,890) in an hour for his online
course, but educational authorities are calling for ban on this
A total of 2,617 students have signed up for Wang Yu’s tutoring course
on high school physics, which is carried out online at a cost of 9
yuan for each audience member. The seven-classes have attracted 9,479
students in total.
With an online portal hosting the course charging 20 percent of Wang’s
income, the teacher made an average of 18,842 yuan per hour.
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
A college English teacher also using an online teaching platform said
she earned about 50,000 yuan in two months, with the largest class
attracting 1,700 online students.
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.
Online education services are mushrooming in China. One tutoring site
offering eight middle and high school courses boasts 15 million
registered student users. Online teachers are generally happy with the
extra income because the Internet has greatly reduced travel costs and
allows more flexible instruction.
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.
“A computer with a camera will do, as long as the network is stable,”
Low costs and high efficiency of online classes have also attracted
“Compared real classes that cost one or two hundred yuan, online
available for less than 10 yuan. I prefer this mode if it helps my
child,” one parent explained.
“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.
But it has raised eyebrows among local educational authorities. An
official from the Education Bureau in Nanjing, capital of east China’s
Jiangsu Province, said the city bans teachers from offering paid
tutoring to students including online services.
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
“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
“ 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
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.