China is pegged as a world leader when it comes to applying artificial intelligence in edtech. Former Google China president Kai-Fu Lee said that “China may soon be leading the world” in AI for education. Media reports talk about an AI “boom” in Chinese classrooms. But the technology has barely made a dent in China’s public education system. 

It’s not for lack of trying. ALO7, the largest K12 digital English language teaching content producer in China, works with 10,000 private schools. They have been trying to partner with public schools for two years, but have only managed to enter 80 Chinese public schools.


Ekaterina Kologrivaya is a researcher and Yenching scholar at Peking University. She holds an M.A. in Asian studies from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

Emma Shleifer graduated in War Studies from King’s College, London, and is now researching Chinese foreign policy as a Yenching Scholar at Peking University.

China’s 500,000 public schools are a big market for edtech companies. But companies offering AI-powered edtech have found it difficult to set up partnerships with them.  

Dhonam Pemba, who has founded several AI product development companies, said his first firm Kadho “didn’t do well in China because business-to-government (B2G) wasn’t profitable,” and he struggled to scale. Facing competition from companies like Chivox in Jiangsu, or iFlytek in Anhui with strong public relations offices, he said they had to “switch to a business-to-consumer (B2C) model” for his second company Kidx.

Most schools in China that have let AI into their classrooms use it to measure attendance and monitor the overall situation in the room, rather than to improve learning. High School No. 11 in Hangzhou, are piloting an AI system to analyze the teaching process, children’s emotions, and manage canteen meals, but the pilot’s results are not yet released. 

Two approaches to edtech AI

The first approach to AI in edtech is that of platforms like Liulishuo, which claims the world’s largest speech bank of Chinese speakers learning English. This so-called intelligent solution analysis collects audio data through an automatic speech recognition system and analyzes it through natural language processing. The algorithm then recommends content suited to the student’s level and gives feedback via text-to-speech.

The second approach is based on adaptive learning. Edtech companies like Onion Academy, a Chinese provider of AI-powered STEM classes, use it to deliver customized courses to address each student’s needs. In contrast to standardized numerical tests, these apps compile an outline of an individual’s competence that includes all the problems the learner has mastered. Based on this, the app gives a list of topics a student is ready to learn. 

Work in progress

Elusive breakthroughs in emotional and cognitive computing make “the development of AI in the education sector slower than that in other fields like security, finance, or customer service,” said a spokesperson of i2, a leading English learning center in China.

i2 only began testing AI tools for assisted teaching in the academic year starting summer-fall 2020. Until now, the company coordinated on offline teaching with public schools in second- and third-tier cities, reaching 35,000 students. A company representative said that they provide courses “with native language speakers, so that Chinese students can better understand the culture of other countries. AI cannot do that.”

A hard sell 

Public schools’ reluctance to bring AI into classrooms is not only because the technology is still evolving. Cooperation is also hindered by budget constraints and risk perceptions. 

Schools are more likely to pay for edtech services if they can justify the cost to their superiors or parents. This usually means that services must offer unique advantages that are hard to replace through traditional education tools. 

The majority of the edtech services on the market that fulfill these criteria have nothing to do with AI.

The most popular form of computerized classes does not use AI, but is rather a simple web-based assignment. Despite concerns that gadgets may replace teachers, they only complement their work. Educators get access to an online library of exercises and get answers graded by the computer.

ALO7’s popular software connects students with native English speakers that supplement schools’ teaching of language skills like grammar. “The alternative is for schools to scout their own language teachers, and that’s resource-intensive, while we can offer easy access to qualified native English educators,” said Andrew Shewbart, a board member of ALO7.

Procurement headaches

All large procurement decisions for edtech are made at the district level. According to a report by impact investment firm Omidyar Network, schools’ buying power increases per level; primary schools have the least purchasing discretion, while “top-tier ones in major cities are completely autonomous.”

“Budgets in prosperous provinces or cities may further the rural-urban chasms if city schools use money to get services [that] less prosperous areas can’t,” said Andrew Shewbart. Individual schools may sometimes make smaller transactions. But given that the technology at its current stage of development is unlikely to bring any major benefits, they have little to no incentive to bend over backwards and adopt expensive AI tools. 

Making procurement more complicated, edtech companies have to pass through cumbersome regulatory hurdles before releasing online courses and use AI at schools. 

China’s regulators are weary of potential privacy abuses creeping in the public education system through edtech apps. The Ministry of Education alleges that several apps used by schools in 2018 contained inappropriate content, online gaming, and advertisements. In 2019, the Shenzhen government began investigating an app that required parents to pay for IQ test analysis, running pseudoscientific brain scans to determine a child’s IQ. 

Regulators want schools to collect data about the students as little as possible, which limits the scope of AI-assisted learning and makes schools hesitant. As Lei Chaozi, director of science and technology at the Ministry of Education, put it: “Personal data collection should follow the principle of minimization, and the large-scale collection of information should be subject to the collective decision-making consent of the school leadership team.”

What does the future hold?

Trust-building is a big challenge for edtech companies, as schools and parents are distrustful of the content, external teachers, and wary of splurging on expensive educational technologies.

“It’s hard to foresee how AI can transform the public education system in the longer term,” said He Zijia, a future product developer at Onion Academy. Embracing new technologies may take time, “especially for teachers who are less tech-savvy, even though most managed to take up new means of teaching during the lockdown,” He said. 

Real progress is underway, but, nationwide, schools’ adoption is still in the pilot phase.

The rush to online post-Covid-19 may accelerate AI adoption in public schools, but for now it remains limited.

READ MORE: Edtech and Covid-19: It’s complicated

Ekaterina Kologrivaya is a researcher and Yenching scholar at Peking University. She holds an M.A. in Asian studies from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

Emma Shleifer graduated in War Studies from King's College, London, and is now researching Chinese foreign policy as a Yenching Scholar at Peking University.