Can Squirrel AI Learning Change the Fate of the 'Poor Student'?
COVID-19 and China
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In November 2019, Squirrel AI Learning attended the Web Summit in Lisbon – the only Chinese technology education enterprise present – to talk about the application and breakthrough of artificial intelligence in the field of education.

Derek Li, the Founder and Chief Educational Technology Scientist of the company, introduced everyone to the overall architecture of Squirrel AI Learning at the summit.

Squirrel AI Learning has used a variety of AI technologies – such as evolutionary algorithms, neural network technology, machine learning, graph theory and Bayesian networks – to recommend personalized learning solutions to students.

The firm’s adaptive learning systems claim to be able to recognize knowledge gaps in real time during the learning process, then immediately fills them with instructional content. The algorithms give each student a personalized learning plan and show which areas the student is weak at, then arranges classes with human teachers to focus on the weaknesses.

Company partner Joleen Liang said in an interview that, even though it defines itself as an online teaching company, there is still a need for physical learning centers because many parents – especially those in the smaller and less developed cities – place value in having the children learn in a structured environment like a classroom, rather than on their own at home, where they might easily be distracted.

Therefore, the company provides personalized lessons for students from elementary to high school through both online courses and at their learning centers. Currently the company has about 2,000 centers across China, with the majority franchised to private owners.

Squirrel AI Learning is trying to level the playing field in China’s education sector, which suffers from an uneven distribution of resources and talent. Like many other large countries, the nation’s top teachers and best facilities are concentrated in big cities like Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai.

Meanwhile, the more poor and rural parts of China often suffer from a lack of qualified teachers and education facilities. Yet when it comes to the Gaokao – China’s national university entrance examinations – all students face the same challenge, regardless of their background.

During the event Derek Li shared two real stories to show how Squirrel AI Learning can help unprivileged students.

The first story was about the daughter of Li's driver, who only scored 25 points through various other types of tutoring. After receiving Squirrel AI's adaptive learning engine's instruction and learning, she was able to be admitted to the best school within her own ability – a ‘Boeing aircraft maintenance’ major in a vocational high school. It was because of the personalization and pertinence of AI teachers that the fate of a so-called ‘poor student’ in a traditional education was changed, Li emphasized.

The second story was about the students in Qingtai County, a poverty-stricken county in China. Squirrel AI Learning took two months to help the children in mountain areas by using the ‘tracing the source’ method for student learning.

Within two months, the achievement level of these children not only exceeded that of the children in the county, but also some children's levels far exceeded the average level of students in Wuhan – a third-tier city.

High-quality education resources are scarce in certain areas of China; they are not only uneven in China's second-, third- and fourth-tier cities, but are also uneven in China's first-tier cities. If everyone has an efficient AI teacher around him/her, then education equity is not just a slogan, but every poor child can realize his/her own different dream completely, Li added.

He also said that the group’s ultimate wish is to build Squirrel AI Learning into an omniscient and omnipotent teacher, like “a combination of Confucius + Da Vinci + Einstein.” Squirrel hopes to use artificial intelligence to change the development history of human education.

The company believes that, with Squirrel AI Learning, artificial intelligence technology can break through the limitations of traditional education modes and bring personalized education to every child.

While it all seems like lavender and roses at first glance, if you are a student from a less developed part of China, there is one big problem: you have to pay for the company’s service. The “Confucius + Da Vinci + Einstein” combination comes with a price.

Therefore, Squirrel AI Learning has a chance to be successful in China’s first-, second- and even third-tier cities with its AI-backed teachers, but it may be quite hard to create a market for them in poorer areas.

Overall, while the company may well provide potential remedies for the education inequality problem, it is unlikely that they will effect sweeping changes to the ‘poor student’s’ fate in a highly  competitive market.

Editor: Luke Sheehan

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