High-tech teach­ers

More com­pa­nies make, ex­port ed­u­ca­tional tools for kids

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By CHENG YU [email protected]­nadaily.com.cn

Fancy your child aged 6-12 build­ing ro­bots and pro­gram­ming them with self-writ­ten soft­ware us­ing new-age tools and toys made by Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tional tech­nol­ogy, or ed tech, firms?

Well, if he/she hasn’t done that yet, it could mean he/she may want to catch up with over 5 mil­lion chil­dren around the world who have been us­ing ed­u­ca­tional ro­bots or in­tel­li­gent hard­ware made by Chi­nese startup Make­block (2017 sales: 203 mil­lion yuan or $29.6 mil­lion, 70 per­cent of which came from over­seas).

Such star­tups are eye­ing a po­ten­tial multi­bil­lion-dol­lar global mar­ket for tech-pow­ered learn­ing tools for chil­dren.

Make­block claims it has sold its ro­bot kits in over 140 coun­tries where over 5 mil­lion chil­dren in more than 20,000 schools use them.

In France, over 6,000 French pri­mary and sec­ondary schools are us­ing Make­block-based soft­ware and cour­ses.

In­dus­try sales in 2018 are es­ti­mated to reach $80 mil­lion in China alone, al­most 10.8 per­cent of the global to­tal, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from Chi­nese ed tech firm JMDedu.

Such po­ten­tial can be linked to Chi­nese kids such as Bei­jing’s Chris Chen, 6, who can im­merse them­selves in cere­bral tasks like robot­build­ing and code-writ­ing a whole af­ter­noon.

Chen’s mother Qin Liu, in her late 30s, an en­gi­neer with a Bei­jing­based in­ter­net com­pany, said her son is still learn­ing the English al­pha­bet at the kinder­garten, but can as­sem­ble Lego-like kits into a bee­tle, a cat and a frog in a jiffy.

Do-it-your­self or DIY block-build­ing, or as­sem­bling stuff from kits com­pris­ing mo­tors, wires, wheels, sen­sors and LED lights, is just the start.

Next is com­mand­ing the ob­ject, typ­i­cally a ro­bot, to per­form or ex­e­cute tasks — sim­ple ac­tions like mov­ing back and forth — through self-de­vel­oped code, us­ing re­lated mo­bile apps.

The level of skill re­quired for DIY assem­bly and cod­ing varies as per the user’s age, said Wang Jian­jun, founder and CEO of Make­block.

Kids like Chen, for ex­am­ple, only need to as­sem­ble less than 10 com­po­nents and write one sen­tence of code, to build a func­tional toy ro­bot.

“Our busi­ness is to com­bine tech­nol­ogy with ed­u­ca­tion to teach kids how to build ro­bots and how to code,” said Wang.

Qin said she would like to in­vest more time and en­ergy in ed­u­cat­ing her son at an early age. These days, early ed­u­ca­tion can­not be con­sid­ered com­plete with­out some train­ing in skills that kids will likely use even­tu­ally as adults, she said.

“For me, build­ing a toy ro­bot is more mean­ing­ful than play­ing with a toy car. A kid can thus learn to de­velop his or her log­i­cal think­ing and de­sign skills while play­ing.”

Agreed an an­a­lyst with re­search con­sul­tancy iiMe­dia. “Ed­u­ca­tional ro­bots are gain­ing trac­tion” thanks to mod­ern-minded par­ents such as Qin who spend lib­er­ally on ed tech tools.

Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey re­port from the Qianzhan In­dus­try Re­search In­sti­tute, more young par­ents would like to pay for earlyage ed­u­ca­tion.

Among par­ents sur­veyed, over 41 per­cent would like to spend 6,000 yuan to 12,000 yuan an­nu­ally on early-ed­u­ca­tion prod­ucts and ser­vices.

No won­der, global sales of ed­u­ca­tional ro­bots are ex­pected to reach $11.1 bil­lion by 2021 from around $3 bil­lion in 2018.

“The mar­ket is go­ing to take off very soon. Com­pa­nies march­ing into the field early will ben­e­fit. We will em­brace the op­por­tu­nity to be­come an in­dus­try leader,” said Wang.

His dash for early mover ad­van­tage comes from the re­al­iza­tion that even tech gi­ants such as Ten­cent Hold­ings Ltd and voice tech­nol­ogy firm iF­lytek Co are com­pet­ing with star­tups in the emerg­ing seg­ment.

With strengths in voice recog­ni­tion tech, He­fei, An­hui province­based iF­lytek launched Al­pha Egg, its lat­est ed­u­ca­tional ro­bot, in Septem­ber 2018. Al­pha Egg helps par­ents by ac­com­pa­ny­ing their chil­dren.

Hangzhou, Zhe­jiang province­based Cheng Qup­ing, 43, fa­ther of two chil­dren, paid 2,900 yuan for the in­tel­li­gent small-sized ro­bot.

The doll-like ro­bot can talk, tell sto­ries and even run after his kids. When Cheng is away on busi­ness trips, he can view and chat with kids through the ro­bot.

“Such ro­bots play a key role in ac­com­pa­ny­ing chil­dren. Es­pe­cially for us par­ents who are re­ally busy with our work, it’s very help­ful,” said Cheng.

So im­pressed is Cheng with the lit­tle ro­bot that he and his wife have set up a re­tail store for the prod­uct.

The birth of their sec­ond child two years ago turned out to be a turn­ing point. All the kids-re­lated tasks sud­denly seem to have dou­bled for the par­ents.

“Now, when we help one child take a bath, the other baby sits qui­etly be­side the ro­bot and plays with it. What a re­lief!”

Guo Jia, founder and CEO of Tur­ing, which mainly helps com­pa­nies to de­velop ro­bots, told a news out­let that com­pared with tra­di­tional ro­bots, the lat­est prod­ucts do much more than merely chat or an­swer sim­ple ques­tions.

When Tur­ing de­signs a ro­bot, it tries to en­sure that the user can build some sort of re­la­tion­ship with the prod­uct. To il­lus­trate this point, Guo has a di­a­logue with a ro­bot.

“Sing a song,” Guo com­manded. The in­tel­li­gent, al­most in­tu­itive ro­bot re­torted: “How did you know that I was about to sing?”

This kind of con­ver­sa­tion lifts the in­ter­ac­tiv­ity el­e­ment to a whole new level, he said. New-age ro­bots dis­play “moods”, thus en­dear­ing them­selves to the users (chil­dren) and ex­tend­ing stick­i­ness — or the over­all time spent by chil­dren with the smart toys.

In ad­di­tion to ro­bots, wear­able de­vices like kids dig­i­tal wrist watches are pop­u­lar among par­ents in China. In­ter­na­tional Data Corp said there are at least 500 smart kids watch firms now in the coun­try.

He­fei, An­hui prov­ince-based Ji Jing, 30, mother of An­chor Chang, 9, a sec­ond-grade stu­dent, bought a 700-yuan smart watch for him as he told her all his class­mates wear sim­i­lar in­tel­li­gent watches, which do much more than dis­play time.

“Un­like ro­bots, smart watches are not ex­pen­sive and they are worth their price,” said Ji. Chang mainly uses his watch to com­mu­ni­cate with his class­mates and par­ents us­ing au­dio and text.

Ji said smart watches are safer than smart­phones in­so­far as pro­tect­ing chil­dren from ad­dic­tive or harm­ful con­tent is con­cerned.

Lyu Sen­lin, founder and chief re­searcher at the Learneasy Times On­line Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search In­sti­tute, an in­dus­try re­search con­sul­tancy, said in­tel­li­gent hard­ware such as ed­u­ca­tional ro­bots has a long way to go in China, in terms of ap­pli­ca­tion of ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies such as ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence.

“With the ad­vance­ment of tech­nolo­gies, the in­tel­li­gence level of such ro­bots will be very high in some coun­tries. For ex­am­ple, some ro­bots can even blink their eyes,” he said.

Lyu pre­dicted that ed­u­ca­tional ro­bots and com­pan­ion ro­bots will still act as dig­i­tal as­sis­tants for a long time to come, and it re­mains to be seen whether the emerg­ing mar­ket will spawn some iconic brands.

Our busi­ness is to com­bine tech­nol­ogy with ed­u­ca­tion to teach kids how to build ro­bots and how to code.”

Wang Jian­jun, founder and CEO of Make­block

LI ZHONG / FOR CHINA DAILY

A young user ex­pe­ri­ences a multi-func­tional, Blue­tooth-en­abled dig­i­tal teacher at an in­tel­li­gent life ex­po­si­tion in Hangzhou, Zhe­jiang prov­ince.

YU MIN / FOR CHINA DAILY

A child pro­grams with a PC key­board. More and more Chi­nese par­ents hope to im­prove their chil­dren’s brain power with the help of in­tel­li­gent prod­ucts.

WANG GANG / FOR CHINA DAILY

A huge “Chil­dren’s Pro­gram­ming” board is dis­played above the door of a chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion store in Huangpu dis­trict, Shang­hai.

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