On­line tech­nol­ogy pro­vides valu­able lessons

China Daily (USA) - - WORLD INTERNET CONFERENCE - By CHENG YU in Wuzhen, Zhe­jiang chengyu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

From apps to AI, par­ents turn to lat­est tech to give their chil­dren a com­pet­i­tive edge

On Nov 8, a smartly dressed news an­chor spoke to a con­fer­ence hall in Wuzhen, Zhe­jiang prov­ince.

But while he might have looked and sounded like a hu­man pre­sen­ter, it was in fact a wholly dig­i­tal re­con­struc­tion, de­vel­oped by the Chi­nese in­ter­net com­pany Sougou and Xin­hua News Agency.

Thanks to ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence-en­abled voice tech­nol­ogy, the vir­tual an­chor can pro­duce hu­man-like vis­ual and voice news re­port­ing, from scripts fed into it.

In China, AI is be­ing in­creas­ingly rolled out in fields in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion, man­u­fac­tur­ing, fi­nance, health­care and au­tonomous driv­ing.

The push comes as part of Chi­nese ef­forts to de­velop the AI sec­tor. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers have said that ac­cel­er­at­ing AI’s de­vel­op­ment is key if China is to seize the op­por­tu­ni­ties pre­sented by the next round of tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion and in­dus­trial trans­for­ma­tion.

The coun­try aims to grow its core AI in­dus­tries to over 150 bil­lion yuan ($21.6 bil­lion) by 2020, 400 bil­lion yuan by 2025, and 1 tril­lion yuan by 2030.

Shen Nan­peng, found­ing and manag­ing part­ner of Se­quoia China, noted at the on­go­ing Fifth World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence that new tech­nolo­gies are help­ing dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries to trans­form and up­grade.

“Not only in­ter­net com­pa­nies, but also tra­di­tional in­dus­tries in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion are in need of in­ter­net tools and so­lu­tions,” he said.

It is not sur­pris­ing that firms are ex­plor­ing the use of AI in teach­ing. On­line ed­u­ca­tion is a huge busi­ness in China — sales rev­enue ac­counted for 281 bil­lion yuan last year, and is ex­pected to rise by an­other 24 per­cent this year.

Zhu Qing, a 39-year-old en­gi­neer from Bei­jing, said she is al­ready see­ing the im­pact that AI is hav­ing. A pen, an eraser and an ex­er­cise book were all she could use when do­ing her home­work 30 years ago. But when it comes to her 9-year-old daugh­ter, it is to­tally dif­fer­ent.

The sec­ond-grade pri­mary school stu­dent does most of her ex­er­cises on an on­line ap­pli­ca­tion. Once fin­ished, the app im­me­di­ately cor­rects all the mis­takes and is even able to of­fer tips for fu­ture stud­ies.

Home­work, which for pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions was a chore, has now be­come a more ef­fi­cient and much hap­pier task thanks to the faster-than-ex­pected de­vel­op­ment of tech­nolo­gies in the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor.

In ad­di­tion, AI is of­fer­ing more pos­si­bil­i­ties as livestream­ing classes have be­come an­other ma­jor trend of on­line ed­u­ca­tion.

VIPKid has built up its busi­ness in China by of­fer­ing chil­dren one-on-one English tu­tor­ing on­line, en­abling 500,000 chil­dren to learn English from 60,000 teach­ers based in North Amer­ica.

In ad­di­tion, two years ago it also launched Lingo Bus, a plat­form teach­ing Chi­nese chil­dren over­seas.

The com­pany is plan­ning to set up branches and ex­pand both its English and Chi­nese teach­ing busi­ness in 10 cities abroad in­clud­ing Seoul, Tokyo, Lon­don, Sin­ga­pore, Madrid and Buenos Aires over the next three years.

“To make a world-class prod­uct will be a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage for a Chi­nese com­pany, and will also be ben­e­fi­cial for chil­dren and par­ents across the world,” said Mi Wen­juan, founder and CEO of VIPKid, dur­ing this year’s World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence.

Liu Jiehao, an an­a­lyst at con­sul­tancy iiMe­dia, said gov­ern­ment sup­port, tech­no­log­i­cal progress and a cul­tural em­pha­sis on ed­u­ca­tion have all con­trib­uted to a bur­geon­ing on­line ed­u­ca­tion mar­ket in China.

China has al­ways iden­ti­fied ed­u­ca­tion as a top pri­or­ity. Since 2016, the gov­ern­ment has been in­vest­ing over 3 tril­lion yuan a year in ed­u­ca­tion. This ac­counts for around 4 per­cent of GDP.

Though this com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors has given the coun­try’s on­line ed­u­ca­tion a boost, an­a­lysts say Chi­nese par­ents are the key driver.

Jing Zhiqiang lives in Bei­jing. He is 42 and fa­ther to a 9-year-old son. He spent 10,980 yuan for a set of 72 classes for his child who at­tends four classes a week on an on­line ed­u­ca­tion plat­form.

The fam­ily spends 2,400 yuan per month for an on­line English course. That’s half of Bei­jing’s av­er­age per-capita monthly dis­pos­able in­come of around 4,800 yuan.

For Jing, the main rea­son be­hind choos­ing the on­line course is that his child can take one-on-one per­son­al­ized tu­tor­ing from na­tive English speak­ers.

“Also, home-based tu­tor­ing is a great re­lief for both my wife and me as we don’t have much time to send and col­lect the child to and from tu­tor­ing in­sti­tutes,” said Jing. “Par­tic­u­larly in Bei­jing where the traf­fic is of­ten ter­ri­ble, we ac­tu­ally save a lot of road time ... Time is money, isn’t it?”

Not only star­tups are in­volved, as tra­di­tional com­pa­nies like TAL Ed­u­ca­tion Group and Sun­lands On­line Ed­u­ca­tion Group are also es­tab­lish­ing a ma­jor pres­ence in on­line ed­u­ca­tion.

TAL show­cased its lat­est tech­nol­ogy prod­ucts and on­line so­lu­tions dur­ing this year’s World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence, in­clud­ing a vir­tual re­al­ity prod­uct, which al­lows stu­dents to study in a dig­i­tal world.

The com­pany’s on­line cour­ses also in­te­grate with the lat­est AI tech­nolo­gies. These can help rec­og­nize and an­a­lyze stu­dent re­spon­sive­ness, as well as their abil­ity to grasp lessons, which could help teach­ers ad­just their teach­ing meth­ods.

“The com­pany is striv­ing to ad­vance ed­u­ca­tion through tech­nol­ogy, hop­ing to build a large-scale, low-cost and high­qual­ity on­line ed­u­ca­tion ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Bai Yun­feng, pres­i­dent of TAL Ed­u­ca­tion Group.

Sun­lands, an­other lead­ing ed­u­ca­tion com­pany, is lev­er­ag­ing Mini Pro­grams, part of Ten­cent’s WeChat in-app func­tion, to of­fer quick-study prod­ucts. Stu­dents can take ad­van­tage of small chunks of time to study, ei­ther dur­ing the break or on the sub­way.

Liu Bo­tong, CEO of Sun­lands, said at the side­lines of this year’s World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence that some ed­u­ca­tional apps are full of ad­ver­tise­ments and com­pli­cated func­tions, and users of­ten strug­gle to nav­i­gate them.

“Through Mini Pro­grams, we aim to help users uti­lize the prod­uct in the short­est time pos­si­ble since we be­lieve that a good prod­uct should be one that can help save time,” he said.

On­line ed­u­ca­tion isn’t only re­stricted to ba­sic classes but also has in­ter­est-ori­ented cour­ses in­clud­ing on­line pro­gram­ming classes.

Ac­cord­ing to mar­ket re­searcher Jing­data, the av­er­age spend­ing on pro­gram­ming classes to­taled 6,000 yuan per per­son per year in China, driv­ing the cur­rent mar­ket size to 10 bil­lion yuan, and is ex­pected to top 50 bil­lion yuan in the com­ing five years.

The growth comes as ed­u­ca­tion au­thor­i­ties seek to ren­o­vate af­ter-school train­ing in­sti­tu­tions, and cut ex­ces­sive aca­demic bur­dens for pri­mary and se­condary school stu­dents.

“One rea­son that on­line pro­gram­ming is gain­ing mo­men­tum is be­cause it is help­ing chil­dren to de­velop their abil­i­ties, in­clud­ing think­ing, which has usu­ally been ig­nored in the past,” said Liu Yiyang, co-founder of Code­mao, a Chi­nese on­line pro­gram­ming startup.

The in­dus­try’s pro­found po­ten­tial has at­tracted in­ter­est from the cap­i­tal mar­ket. To­tal fundrais­ing ex­ceeded 15 bil­lion yuan in the first half of this year.

VIPKid raised $500 mil­lion in its lat­est round of fi­nanc­ing in June this year, which was the world’s largest-ever fundrais­ing drive for the on­line ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor. It also pushes the com­pany’s val­u­a­tion to over 20 bil­lion yuan, mak­ing it the big­gest on­line ed­u­ca­tion com­pany glob­ally.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port by mar­ket re­search con­sul­tancy Big-Data-Re­search, fi­nanc­ing in the coun­try’s on­line ed­u­ca­tion in­dus­try in the first six months of this year can ri­val the to­tal fundrais­ing of last year.

A to­tal of 7.4 bil­lion yuan was in­vested in qual­ity-ori­ented ed­u­ca­tion in the first half of this year, ac­count­ing for 28.9 per­cent of to­tal in­vest­ment in the on­line ed­u­ca­tion in­dus­try.

Sec­tors in­clud­ing lan­guage, K12, early ed­u­ca­tion and pro­fes­sional train­ing are some of the other pop­u­lar ar­eas that in­vestors are look­ing at fa­vor­ably.

“Fre­quent fi­nanc­ing has ac­cel­er­ated the ac­cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of the coun­try’s on­line ed­u­ca­tion seg­ment,” said Lyu Sen­lin, founder and chief re­searcher at Learneasy Times On­line Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search In­sti­tute, an in­dus­try re­search con­sul­tancy.

“In­dus­try lead­ers are con­tend­ing for big­ger mar­ket share and push­ing small firms out.”

Ji Liyin, vice-in­vest­ment pres­i­dent of Founder H Fund, said at an on­line ed­u­ca­tion con­fer­ence: “For in­vestors, they care more about the fu­ture di­rec­tion. On a broader scale, only changes in pol­icy will bring about more room for growth and new op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Thereby, emerg­ing ar­eas will be the first pri­or­ity for in­vestors, he said, adding that in­dus­tries where tech­nolo­gies are low­er­ing work bur­dens for hu­mans will be a good di­rec­tion for in­vest­ment.

LI JIAN­MING / FOR CHINA DAILY

A vis­i­tor learns about a ro­bot dur­ing the Fifth World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence in Wuzhen, Zhe­jiang prov­ince.

CHEN ZEBING / CHINA DAILY

A vis­i­tor tries a vir­tual re­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion prod­uct at the booth of Xueersi dur­ing the Fifth World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence in Wuzhen, Zhe­jiang prov­ince.

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