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Squirrel AI – a unicorn created from China’s obsession with education and AI – edtech at its finest ?

Karen Hau has written an amazing paper on how China is investing in edtech and AI – and compares 2 edtech’s in Shanghai – one of which is Squirrel – Shanghai’s edtech’s unicorn . Click here to read her article 

The exponential Growth of Squirrel 

Since it’s inception 5 years ago, Squirrel has opened 2,000 learning centers in 200 cities and registered over a million students—equal to New York City’s entire public school system. It plans to expand to 2,000 more centers domestically within a year. 

To date, the company has raised over $180 million in funding, and has gained  unicorn status, surpassing $1 billion in valuation. 

Squirrel has  recruited several Americans to serve on his executive team, with the intent of pushing into the US and Europe in the next two years. One of them is Tom Mitchell, the dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon; another is Dan Bindman, who led the user experience and editorial teams at ALEKS.

They have heavily marketed their technical capabilities through academic publications, international collaborations, and awards, and have opened a joint research lab with Carnegie Mellon University this year to study personalized learning at scale, then export it globally.

It is no wonder why it is the darling of the Shanghai local government.

The Pain

China’s obsession into education is renowned worldwide, with immigrants in Australia topping institutions  and schools wherever they are. 

In China, academic competition is fierce, with Ten million students a year take the college entrance exam, the gaokao. Your score determines whether and where you can study for a degree, and it’s seen as the biggest determinant of success for the rest of your life. 

Parents are willingly paying for tutoring or anything else that helps their children get ahead. 

It so no wonder that China is investing and focussing its energy into edtech, with the government giving significant grants and tax incentives to companies investing in AI ventures that improve anything from student learning to teacher training to school management. For VCs, this means such ventures are good bets.

As a result, AI-enabled teaching and learning has exploded with tech giants and startups popping up like mushrooms! 

The Pain Killer 

Squirrel focuses on helping students score better on annual standardized tests, which taps straight into national gaokao anxiety; more than 80% of its students return year after year.

Dr Wei Cui, partner at Squirrel AI Learning says  “We can help every student  with high quality education. Their family doesn’t need to pay to go to the high quality school, don’t need to pay for the one-to-one tutoring, the experienced teachers. The system we can replicate is anywhere, any time – it is unlimited.”

Squirrel has been designed to capture ever more data from the beginning, which has made possible all kinds of personalization and prediction experiments. It has over 400,000 video courses and 10 million questions – which is growing daily .

AI in education is becoming ubiquitous with tens of millions of students now use some form of AI to learn, and in his 2018 book Rewiring Education, John Couch, Apple’s vice president of education, lauded Squirrel AI. (A Chinese version of the book is coauthored by Squirrel’s founder, Derek Li.) 

Squirrel’s innovation and how it creates its courses 

AI and adaptive learning is not new – Squirrels innovation and genius is through its granularity and scale. 

For every course it offers, its engineering team works with a group of master teachers to subdivide the subject into the smallest possible conceptual pieces. 

Middle school math, for example, is broken into over 10,000 atomic elements, or “knowledge points,” such as rational numbers, the properties of a triangle, and the Pythagorean theorem. The goal is to diagnose a student’s gaps in understanding as precisely as possible. By comparison, a textbook might divide the same subject into 3,000 points; ALEKS, an adaptive learning platform developed by US-based McGraw-Hill, which inspired Squirrel’s, divides it into roughly 1,000.

Once the knowledge points are set, they are paired with video lectures, notes, worked examples, and practice problems. Their relationships—how they build on each other and overlap—are encoded in a “knowledge graph,” also based on the master teachers’ experience.

One of many students benefitting  from Squirrel AI

Zhou Yi was terrible at math. He risked never getting into college. Then a company called Squirrel AI came to his middle school in Hangzhou, China, promising personalized tutoring. He had tried tutoring services before, but this one was different: instead of a human teacher, an AI algorithm would curate his lessons. The 13-year-old decided to give it a try. By the end of the semester, his test scores had risen from 50% to 62.5%. Two years later, he scored an 85% on his final middle school exam.

“I used to think math was terrifying,” he says. “But through tutoring, I realized it really isn’t that hard. It helped me take the first step down a different path.”

The new classroom

In the classroom , there are no whiteboards, projectors, or other equipment—just one table per room, meant for six to eight people – with each student having a laptop. 

Students work out practice problems on pieces of paper before submitting their answers online. In each room, a teacher monitors the students through a real-time dashboard.

At different points, both teachers notice something on their screen that prompts them to walk over and kneel by a student’s chair. 

They speak in hushed tones, presumably to answer a question the tutoring system can’t resolve.

“It’s so quiet,” I whisper to the small gang of school and company staff assembled for my tour. The Hangzhou regional director smiles with what I interpret as a hint of pride: “There are no sounds of teachers lecturing.”

The fallout 

AI can help teachers foster their students’ interests and strengths – but could it entrench a global trend toward standardized learning and testing, leaving the next generation ill prepared to adapt in a rapidly changing world of work?

  • Collaboration , group discussion and communication – is no longer a main form of upskilling – is this a good thing?
  • Is standardized learning and testing a good thing? 
  • Is this technology taking  China to a point of education that any progressive pedagogue or education system is moving away from? 

(Ik comment :- It’s not either or – You can still teach collaboration and discussion – why link learning stem to collaboration? )

How is this learning shaping the nature of work?

As machines become better at rote tasks, humans will need to focus on the skills that remain unique to them: creativity, collaboration, communication, and problem-solving. They will also need to adapt quickly as more and more skills fall prey to automation. 

This means the 21st-century classroom should bring out the strengths and interests of each person, rather than impart a canonical set of knowledge more suited for the industrial age.

AI, in theory, could make this easier. It could take over certain rote tasks in the classroom, freeing teachers up to pay more attention to each student. Hypotheses differ about what that might look like. 

Perhaps AI will teach certain kinds of knowledge while humans teach others; perhaps it will help teachers keep track of student performance or give students more control over how they learn. 

Regardless, the ultimate goal is deeply personalized teaching.

Squirrel’s approach may yield great results on traditional education, but it doesn’t prepare students to be flexible in a changing world.

The students journey at Squirrel 

A student begins a course of study with a short diagnostic test to assess how well she understands key concepts. 

If she correctly answers an early question, the system will assume she knows related concepts and skip ahead. Within 10 questions, the system has a rough sketch of what she needs to work on, and uses it to build a curriculum. 

As she studies, the system updates its model of her understanding and adjusts the curriculum accordingly. As more students use the system, it spots previously unrealized connections between concepts. 

The machine-learning algorithms then update the relationships in the knowledge graph to take these new connections into account. 

Squirrel has offered some validation of its system. In October 2017, for example, a self-funded four-day study with 78 middle school students found that the system was better on average at lifting math test scores than experienced teachers teaching a dozen or so kids in a traditional classroom.

The students Karen spoke to at the learning center had high praise for the tutoring program as well. All were finishing middle school and had been coming to the center for more than a year. 

One girl, Fu Weiyi, tells Karen she’s improved far faster than when she got individual tutoring from a human teacher. “Here, I have a teacher both on and offline,” she says. “Plus, the instruction is very targeted; the system can directly identify the gaps in my understanding.” Another student echoes the sentiment: “With the system, you don’t have to do tons of exercises, but it’s still effective. It really saves time.”

“I wish I had more interaction with real human teachers”

Squirrel’s founder Derek Li

Squirrel’s founder Li, is keen to integrate his curriculum directly into the main classroom. and is already in discussion with several schools in China to make its system the primary method of instruction.

Teaching Emotional Intelligence 

Much of Squirrel’s philosophy stems from Li’s own experiences as a child. When he was young, he didn’t have very good emotional intelligence, he says, and reading books on the subject didn’t help. So he spent half a year dividing the skill into 27 different components and trained himself on each one. 

He trained himself to be more observant, for example, and to be an interesting conversationalist (“I spent a lot of time finding 100 topics, so I have a lot of material to talk with others,” he says). 

He even trained himself to keep smiling when others criticized him. (“After that, in my life, I do not have any enemies.”) The method gave him the results he wanted—along with the firm belief that anything can be taught this way.

Teachers will be like pilots 

Li uses an analogy to lay out his ultimate vision. “When AI education prevails,” he says, “human teachers will be like a pilot.” They will monitor the readouts while the algorithm flies the plane, and for the most part they will play a passive role. But every so often, when there’s an alert and a passenger panics (say, a student gets bullied), they can step in to calm things down. “Human teachers will focus on emotional communication,” he says.

Li thinks this is the only way humanity will be able to elevate its collective intelligence. Entrusting teachers with anything else could risk “damaging geniuses.” He’s playing out this philosophy on his own kids, using Squirrel’s system as much as possible to train them. He boasts that his eight-year-old twin boys, in the second grade, are now learning eighth-grade physics, a testament that his method is working. “Only adaptive systems could make such miracles,” he says.

Posted on August 10, 2019

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