​The future has come: AI in education and poverty alleviation

​By Li Weifeng
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, January 8, 2019
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Visitors watch a robot dance at the World Robot Conference 2017 in Beijing, capital of China, Aug. 25, 2017. [Photo / Xinhua]

Science fiction writers and filmmakers have been predicting dramatic and even catastrophic changes with the advent of the "age of Artificial Intelligence." However, in less than a decade, smart homes and everyday technologies have become a prominent reality. One field where artificial intelligence is expected to make a most profound change is education. But how should we best harness this powerful tool to the greatest advantage? We have to start by looking at our traditional classrooms, at how teachers and students typically interact.

In the conventional model, the teacher's knowledge is transferred by oral presentation to the students. Each student in the class has the same textbook, the same teacher and the same curriculum. The quality of knowledge transfer is determined by the quality of the transferrer and the quality of the recipient. 

This model brings some serious problems: on one hand, parents are seeking the best schools and teachers because the quality of education is determined mainly by the teachers; on the other hand, schools are seeking the best teachers and the best students since test results and the schools' reputation are determined by both. So the best teachers usually go to the best schools. In Chinese cities, the price of housing is even determined by the rankings of nearby schools. As a result, a tiny, shabby one-bedroom flat can be sold for 10 million yuan in Beijing if it's in a good school district. 

But teachers can only appear in one class at a time, so in less developed areas, schools are facing shortages of quality teachers. Add the fact that in these areas, parents are often working away from home, and these students receive little to no family homework help, even as those in big cities get hours a day of parental coaching on their homework. In short, the poor become poorer due to poor education.  

How can AI address this situation? First of all, learning across the board can be made more personalized and interactive. Dynamic and visual learning channels outside the classroom can support a range of learning methods. Students and teachers can also access precisely the resources they need when they need them. This may buy valuable time, allowing for more meaningful interaction between the teacher and the students, and between peers. 

Recently a small robot named "Einstein" came onto the market that can answer almost any question you ask. With its homework tutoring function, migrant workers who leave home to work may have a viable option to tutor their children. 

In recent years, we've also seen the explosive popularity of online courses, which allow the best teachers to be shared virtually at no added cost. Computer vision can even track students' eye movements and expressions to detect engagement, confusion or boredom, and AI as well as real teachers can respond. At the same time, AI could take over record keeping and scoring, freeing teachers from mentally numbing tasks, and making the entire educational system more efficient. 

Teachers may feel anxiety at the thought of being replaced by machines, but AI is not meant to eliminate teachers. Students still rely heavily on interpersonal relationships. The good news for teachers is that AI education can allow more creative activities, customization of content and optimization of learning. 

The purpose of "education for poverty alleviation" is to enable all children to acquire the skills and knowledge to benefit their families and change their destinies. An important first step in bridging the digital divide is to make broadband internet access more affordable for low-income households, bringing the possibility of AI education to poverty-stricken areas. 

Recently the Ministry of Education has announced an experimental pilot program in Ningxia that will establish a remote synchronous link between the poorer, rural area and Beijing Foreign Studies University. In this way, teachers at high-level schools in developed areas can share resources and knowledge with those in impoverished areas, helping them better nurture their students' growth. Programs like these can further reduce the quality gap between urban and rural education. 

According to Confucian wisdom, we should make no social distinctions in teaching. We can already say that the least inflated product in China in recent years is university tuition, with a growth of only about 10 percent over the past two decades — a sharp contrast to the U.S., where university fees have skyrocketed to a level that the lower-middle class can barely afford. 

In the era of artificial intelligence, education will truly no longer be a luxury reserved for the elite. AI may secure not only jobs for the future, but sustainable career development for children. No matter what mixed feelings we have about intelligent technologies, the future is coming, and it looks like China is standing in an advantageous position. 

Li Weifeng is the executive general secretary of the Center for China and Globalization.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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