Editor’s note: This article was supported by Hujiang Education Technologies. We believe in transparency in our publishing and monetization model. Read more here.

Language learning used to be mostly massive open online courses (MOOC), and many startups have taken many different methods to improve user interaction language learning. Shanghai-based English learning platform Rikai Labs uses WeChat chatbot, 2010-born language learning social network italki uses Skype to allow its users to give language lessons to each other, and there are other solo app learning startups as can be seen from Busuu, Duolingo, and Memrise. Now a Chinese startup Hujiang is using AI to help you learn a new language and analyzes the interaction of students and a teacher on its live streaming platform CCtalk. For example, if the teacher joked in the class that created more engagement, the company analyzes data and provides that to the teacher.

Since live streaming started to take over the China market from early 2016, there has been a number of education platforms that have launched their own live streaming services for teachers to give lectures. These traditional education corporates like New Oriental, TAL (Tomorrow Advancing Life), live streaming platforms like YY, Douyu, and startups like Zuoyebang and Xiaoyuansouti.

At first glance, AI-powered CCtalk’s live class has little resemblance to a typical MOOC class— primarily one-way streaming without interaction using courseware or whiteboard.

When you first download the CCtalk app and register, the app asks you if you’re a student, white-collar worker, hot mom or cool dad (辣妈酷爸), or a free person (自由人). Such information is collected to provide tailored services to its users, such as the courses and news they might be interested in and to better understand users’ learning behaviors and habits.

Then you can tap keywords based on the language you want to learn and your interests, so I clicked on tags like “IT/ internet”, “French”, and “liberal arts and history.” Then you can access the main page, where you’ll see many different live classes you can attend.

Many live language courses are for English, Japanese and Korean, and users can attend the class they are interested in. These classes are at set times and there is a timetable with the title of the lesson and the time. Teachers on CCTalk often use powerpoint-like slideshows that contain the notes the teacher will use to teach the class. The teacher annotates on the presentation by typing, underlining and circling on it with a digital red pen.

I attended a Korean language live class given by a lady named Snow. On top of the courseware where she listed out dozens of words, she typed down a phrase using the word and was explaining each word with an example. (See the images below) Students typed down the questions to her, and she directly answered. Some users sent digital flowers to the teacher, which the teacher can cash in as a tip.

Teachers on CCtalk make money from the paid courses they teach, including live lectures, pre-recorded videos, micro classes (“微课” in Chinese) which lasts just a few minutes. The charge varies from courses to courses with a class fee ranging from RMB 9.9 ($1.5) to RMB 40,000 ($6,399). CCtalk puts it this way: Earn as you share knowledge (通过知识分享获得收入).

Once you tap on the second board on the app, you can see a timeline where students ask questions like “Do you have any book recommendation to learn Korean by yourself?”, “Can someone please translate this sentence for me?”, and other students or teacher’s answer. On the third page, you can choose to join the chatting group of Snow’s Korean course, which adds number to Snow’s number of followers.

CCtalk app screen capture (l, m): Teachers are giving live classes while students ask questions.  Students ask questions on the timeline (r)

While the CCtalk app looks rather simple and straightforward to use for language learners, the app is actually gathering big data from the teachers and students, to make the language learning much more efficient.

Using AI in language learning

“Typically when we talk about AI application in education, most of the apps focus on how to improve learning from learner’s perspective,” Dr. Lu Jian, a partner at Hujiang.com, and CEO at CCtalk told TechNode. “However, we are collecting data from both the student and the teacher. By mining the data, we learn from learner’s perspective, how to learn better, and from teacher’s perspective, how to teach better.”

CCtalk is a real-time interactive teaching platform that grew out of Hujiang’s (沪江) online teaching tools. In the course of doing online education business for over 10 years, Hujiang developed a suite of teaching tools called CCtalk, including audio-visual streaming, and digital whiteboard for independent teachers about a year ago, and later it became a platform business under it. Compared to CCtalk, Hujiang provides paid live or recorded online classes with B2C model: they develop the educational content and sell the classes to the students.

“Before AI, there was a field of study called adaptive learning (自适应学习), which tries to personalize the learning. It works by building a knowledge graph first, then it provides personalization based on well-designed evaluation tests,” Dr. Lu says.

‘Adaptive learning’ and ‘intelligent classes’ are mainly adopted on Hujiang Class (沪江网校). Adaptive learning is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices, and to personalize the teaching and mediated resources according to the unique needs of each learner. To adopt adaptive learning into Hujiang’s classes, a number of questions are given to students to evaluate how well he or she has learned.

“Dynamic knowledge points are supported by a test form and the student will be evaluated based on these knowledge points. Then we will create a personalized learning program in and different phases for different students. These are called intelligent classes (智能课程) or courses,” Dr. Lu Jian explains.

In this way, Hujiang has gathered big data on how much the students learn about the specific materials and uses the data in order to make learning tailored and personalized to students.

Partner of Hujiang EdTech and CEO of CCtalk Dr Lu Jian (Image Credit: CCtalk)

The AI application on the CCtalk platform is mainly for teachers to help teachers teach better. On the teaching part, CCtalk collects a variety of data on how the teacher holds the classes. CCtalk will record how many minutes the teacher spends for each page in the courseware, and send out these data and insights to the teachers.

“We cannot tell a teacher what to do, but a teacher has a review [of their current teaching method] in order to improve effectiveness and efficiency. Also, we have the data about the in-class interaction between the teacher and the students,” he says.

Many of their services are now based on big data and cloud technologies. For example, if the teacher joked in the class that created more engagement, say many students started typing “haha” instantaneously, the company analyzes data and provides that to the teacher. However, it seems that it will take more time for the company to actually figure out how AI can boost up the language learning and monetize it.

“We are not cashing on AI at the moment. Now many companies in education are exploring the potential of applying AI to education. We are at a stage trying out different AI applications. In a commercial point of view, we are yet to see how we can cash in on this,” Dr. Lu says.

Why attend live streaming classes

Dr. Lu said the live courses available on Hujiang platforms increased fivefold in 2015 in a speech at the 2016 Computing Conference in Hangzhou. He says there are several reasons for that. Firstly, students love interacting with teachers, and live streaming allows students and teachers to interact more.

“Rather than recorded online video classes, I think that live streaming resembles more traditional class in a sense that the students can have their questions answered. These live classes are attractive to students, and even students want to watch the video later. And many of them want to come to live classes,” Dr. Lu Jian says.

Secondly, live streaming for online class encourages more active interaction from the audience, which is a key difference between live streaming for an online class and live streaming for entertainment.

“The old way of live streaming for old entertainment, just like watching a movie, doesn’t require a lot of interaction. In that type of streaming, there is a longer delay. But in the live class, because students like to interact with a teacher, and the delay has to be short, typically under half second,” Dr. Lu added.

For many educators live streaming is still a tool, not a business model. There is speculation whether or not these live streaming classes can make money in an already saturated. However, the idea of live streaming class opens the door to narrow the gap between affluent families and those who live in rural areas with less financial freedom. In my personal observation, the classes on CCtalk seemed too technical for test preparation since the classes tend to focus on more on grammars and vocabularies than actual verbal interaction with the teacher. However, there were other paid classes than just languages on Hujiang, such as bride makeup, sketching, yoga class for pregnant women, and children’s ballet, which shows the decent establishment of Hujiang as a teaching tool for virtually any subject.