Over the past two hundred years, the human society has been transformed through three industrial revolutions (steam, electricity, chips), yet the way we educate our workforce has remained largely unchanged. With the fourth revolution brought by the advancement in machine learning, the education industry in China is racing to catch the opportunities. VIPKID, “Uber for online English teaching”, is a marketplace that allows native English speakers to teach English online to children in China on a one-on-one basis. VIPKID is setting the application of machine learning as a major strategy pillar.
Through providing a standardized curriculum for any native speaker to be able to teach, VIPKID has reached over $1 billion annual revenue with its commoditized English lessons. However, in order to retain students for the long run, the company needs to maximize the efficacy of teaching by incorporating personalized learning to tailor to each student’s needs and preferences. This could be aided by the use of deep learning. Meanwhile, VIPKID is a sales and services-heavy business with half of its labor dedicated to customer services facing students’ parents. With the advancement of Natural Language Processing and Natural Language Understanding, these labor-intensive services and sales tasks could be significantly automated to streamline operations.
Looking across the industry, a competitive service Liulishuo, the AI English Tutor mobile app, has recently completed an $72 million IPO at NYSE . Although Liulishuo’s pure AI tutor is still no replacement for human teachers, VIPKID needs to invest into the forefront of AI technology to stay ahead of the curve.
Machine Learning in Action
To date, VIPKID has taken a series of initiatives aiming to incorporate machine learning technologies into its products. The company established the VIPKID Education Research Institute in partnership with Stanford University to conduct machine learning research in areas such as language ability assessment for student placement . August 2018, the company also partnered with Microsoft to leverage its AI technology to improve the learning experience .
As VIPKID records all of its online sessions between students and teachers, with the help of Microsoft, it can analyze the 10 million+ minutes of video sessions, looking specifically at students’ facial reactions to the materials they learn. As interactivity is crucial in online education and each student has distinct ways of expressing feelings, VIPKID has developed a complex deep neural network to analyze students’ eye movements to assess their engagement. With this, the company can further improve the matching algorithm to pair students with teachers of best fit on a 1-1 setting. In addition, VIPKID rolled out Chatterbox, a new AI product that listens to students’ pronunciation, scores them, and correct them, enabling students to practice speaking after class .
As the various algorithms become open source and GPU costs eventually coming down, in order to gain an edge in the machine learning era, proprietary data is key. Today, as VIPKID rolls out more education products (lessons for other formats, languages, subjects), it needs to record all students’ learning journeys, so it can possess the most comprehensive learning profile for each child and can derive deep customer insights to offer the most relevant services as these children grow up. On the other hand, to create an operationally learn corporation and support rapid growth without multiplying its sales and services staff, VIPKID needs to adopt AI customer service tools to automate substantial parts of its service responses; it should also deploy sales call analytics tools powered by machine learning to optimize the effectiveness of customer acquisition efforts. Meanwhile, to complement its technology capabilities, VIPKID should formulate the strategy of its corporate development team to focus on adding machine learning capabilities in learning context by acquiring valuable startups.
With the accumulation of good-quality interaction data between students and teachers, it is possible that in the foreseeable future VIPKID develops a pure AI teacher who can deliver the curriculum tailored to the students’ learning styles and real-time engagement. The product might not encompass the same level of care, humor, and empathy as a real life teacher, but perhaps VIPKID can offer the AI version at a fraction of the cost, making these lessons affordable to children in the poor rural areas of emerging economies. This would, however, stir controversies around how we educate children — Should students be taught by machines? How would that affect the growth of these young minds psychologically?
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 Mars Woo, “China’s English learning app Liulishuo raises $72m in US IPO”. Deal Street Asia. September 28, 2018.https://www.dealstreetasia.com/stories/liulishuo-laix-us-ipo-107552/ Accessed November 11, 2018.
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 “AI Tech, why is VIPKID ahead?” Hubei English Online. July 20th, 2017. http://hubei.eol.cn/jybt/201707/t20170720_1542263.shtml Accessed November 12, 2018.