AI-Enabled Tuition Ushers in the 'Intelligent Age'

June 8, 2019
Editor: Wei Xuanyi
A student tries virtual reality technology in a smart classroom at a primary school in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. [For China Daily/Hua Xuegen]


Yang Ming, a 33-year-old immobile and partially sighted man from Chengde, Hebei Province, never imagined he could become his family's "financial adviser."

However, in late April, he noticed trouble brewing in the financial statements of a company whose stock was owned by his relatives, so he advised selling the shares.

Although they were reluctant at first, his relatives sold the shares at a slight loss, but kept most of their 4,000 yuan ($578) investment intact.

A short time later, the company's stock went into free fall when the Shanghai Stock Exchange plunged as a result of rising uncertainty over trade negotiations between China and the United States.

"We dodged a bullet, thanks to the financial knowledge I learned from free online courses," Yang said.

Since 2013, he has been studying basic economics and finance on XuetangX, China's first and biggest massive open online course platform, launched by Tsinghua University.

By April, the platform was hosting nearly 2,140 classes provided by top universities from around the world and had more than 26 million registered users.

In recent years, China has embraced new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and big data, to provide lifelong, equitable and personalized educational opportunities for its 518,900 schools and 276 million students at all levels — the world's largest education sector, according to the Ministry of Education.

In a congratulatory letter to the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Education in Beijing last month, President Xi Jinping said China is fully using the advantages of AI and has deepened its integration to facilitate reforms and changes in the education sector.

At the end of the conference, about 500 representatives from more than 100 countries and 10 international organizations passed a joint agreement to promote research on frontier issues related to AI technologies and jointly explore effective strategies and practices to facilitate educational innovation.

AI technology is used to teach calligraphy at a school in Kunming, Yunnan Province.

Fulfilling a dream

At age 3, Yang was diagnosed with advanced rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that causes chronic inflammation and pain in about 90 percent of his joints. However, he never let his disability dampen his desire to learn. "I may have pains in my body, but my mind is still clear and curious," he said. "I refuse to waste away on a sickbed. I want to learn and see the world and be a useful member of society."

When he left school at 14, he mostly stayed indoors due to deformed joints and pain. His family, an ordinary household, has devoted most of its time and savings to ease his suffering.

Seeing how the illness was stressing his family, Yang decided to learn about the stock market and finance, hoping to make money at home by trading on the market and improve his financial situation. "No school would want to accept a broke, blind and disabled student," he said.

In 2013, Yang heard a television commercial for the newly launched XuetangX, which only offered five classes at the time. "But it was free, and from one of the best schools in the country. That gave me hope," he said.

However, while signing up for classes was easy, the study process was anything but.

"I had to increase the font size of each character to that of an egg, and it would still take me around 10 seconds to make sense of its meaning," Yang said.

Despite those difficulties, he completed about 15 courses and passed every exam. He then put theory into practice by investing about 5,000 yuan in the stock market. After quadrupling his investment, he quit just before the market crashed in 2015.

That same year, his story of perseverance reached Xiao Xing, a professor of accountancy at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management, who taught one of Yang's online classes.

She invited him to a group event at Tsinghua, and sent him an autographed book bearing the inscription, "Knowledge puts wings on dreams." Yang was delighted, "Given my condition, visiting Tsinghua was a dream come true."

Although his health is unstable, he still logs on to XuetangX to learn new things whenever he can.

"The interface now is much more user friendly and the platform recommends classes tailored to my progress and needs," he said. "Although I am not enrolled at Tsinghua, the courses make me feel like one of the students in the classroom. At times, I feel that this is all I ever wanted."

The Zhangmen platform, a provider of online tutorials, assesses a student's level of engagement by analyzing his facial expression. [For China Daily]

Empowering teachers

Online courses have increased public access to quality educational resources, but unlike traditional classrooms, the teachers cannot directly monitor and interact with their students when teaching online, which can lead to disengaged students and poor feedback.

To resolve these issues, three students from Tsinghua and the University of Tsukuba in Japan have created an AI-based model that can be integrated into online teaching platforms to analyze facial expressions and "bullet screens", real-time viewers' comments on the screen.

The model then crunches the data and creates a line graph that tells the teacher exactly when and what parts of the lesson students find most interesting or difficult. The project won third prize at the 2018 International Collegiate Competition for Brain-Inspired Computing hosted by Tsinghua.

"This empowers teachers to gain objective, timely and multifaceted insights into their students' state of learning, which can be used to assess and improve their lessons," said Qie Nan, an industrial engineering doctoral candidate at Tsinghua and one of the people behind the project.

"Teachers are already under a lot of stress, and it is impossible for them to keep track of every student's behavior throughout a class," she said, adding that AI is meticulous, tireless and fair. "It might not replace human teachers, but it can free them from tedious tasks."

For years, burnout has been a serious issue for the teaching profession around the globe. According to a 2014 report by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a teachers' advocacy group, roughly 500,000 teachers in the United States either move to new jobs or leave the profession every year.

Speaking at the 2019 National Education Work Conference in Beijing, Chen Baosheng, minister of education, said his ministry has made reducing unnecessary work for teachers one of this year's top priorities.

"We have to free teachers from pointless paperwork and nonteaching-related work," he said.

"We have to give time and energy back to teachers to let them work on their research and on preparing lessons."

Companies and schools are already testing AI technologies to help grade papers and scan for errors, make suggestions, or notice when the students veer too far off topic.

Similar projects are also in the works in the US, such as Gradescope, an online grading application developed at the University of California, Berkeley, that claims to be able to grade exams, homework and code assignments in half the usual time.

Futuristic school

Beijing National Day School is arguably the most futuristic middle school in China. The 67-year-old institution has no head teachers and no set classrooms.

It also offers different schedules for every one of its 4,500 students, who can choose from more than 400 different classes.

What turns this administrative nightmare into an enticing reality is the power of AI, which is woven into the very fabric of the school, from grading papers to delivering packages to personalizing class schedules, Li Xigui, the principal, told Xinhua News Agency.

"We want AI technologies to be our guiding light, and to train a new generation of children who can collaborate and compete with robots in the future," he said.

"Schools must provide more opportunities for students to experience transformative technologies. Only then will they be able to tackle the challenges of the 'Intelligent Age'."

A futuristic vibe permeates the entire campus. One can witness Xiaoyi, a teaching aid program, answer students' questions, while Xiaohuang, a self-driving cart, delivers packages to teachers, and Wukong, a service robot, attends to visitors' needs.

AI has also been integrated into 36 classes, from classical Chinese literature to biology. Li said the classes are meant to stoke the students' curiosity and familiarize them with AI technologies and equipment.

The school also provides intermediate classes on programming languages and web and app design, and advanced lessons in robotics and self-driving technology.

Song Yan, director of the school's information center, said there are plans to have 30 percent of students take part in AI-related courses.

"We want our students and teachers to have ample time to freely explore and innovate with AI," he said.

Ma Yue, a sophomore, said he enjoys the freedom and personalized classes the school provides: "The teachers are very supportive and often ask us to be inquisitive. They are like our friends."

Schoolchildren learn through a VR system that features immersion and interaction in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. [For China Daily/Zhang Tao]


(Source: China Daily)

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