In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s education system has been forced to adapt. Public schools have suspended all spring term classes and 260 million students have taken their studies online.
In this climate of uncertainty, students, educators and policymakers have increasingly realised that they must turn to technological solutions – in particular, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies – to overhaul the existing education system.
But the push for AI education in China began earlier, before the crisis hit. Three years ago, in July 2017, the Chinese government published an ambitious master plan to build the nation into a powerhouse of AI innovation, particularly in education. The government’s mandate, fuelled by the massive quantities of student data available to drive new technologies and funded by the significant spending power of Chinese parents in a highly competitive academic culture, laid the foundations for the country’s AI education boom. Education technology startups in the private sector, with their access to large datasets, ample venture capital funding and flexibility to experiment with new technologies, have been spearheading the development of AI education.
On one hand, purveyors of intelligent technologies – such as smart schools and adaptive learning systems – believe that the development of AI education holds great potential to address teacher scarcity, offer alternative models of schooling and reshape the traditional learning paradigm. On the other hand, these developments face significant limitations and risks. Can new innovations be implemented and made widely accessible in existing public school systems or will they deepen existing educational inequities? Are AI technologies capable of meaningfully teaching students the complex skills of creativity, collaboration and critical thinking, or will they simply magnify outmoded pedagogical practices? How will schools address and regulate the ethical and privacy concerns around the mass collection and use of student data? These are all questions that apply not only to the Chinese education system but should also be of concern to educators and policymakers in Europe as AI begins to make rapid inroads into education to fill a gap in these uncertain times.