Monday, March 4, 2024

Parents turn to AI tablets after China’s tutor crackdown

Must read

Eleven-year-old Lulu was once top of her class at a leading school in Xiangyang, a city in central China — but last year, her grades started to slip. Education is seen as the main gateway to social mobility in the country, and with a massive population vying for a limited number of places at top universities, the pressure to perform in school is intense. Following a clampdown on after-school tutors by the government, Lulu’s mother, Yang Hongyi, opted for an alternative approach to raising her daughter’s grades: She bought an artificial intelligence-powered educational tablet from iFlytek, priced at 8,999 yuan ($1,255). “No one wants their kid to fall behind so early in life,” Yang told Rest of World.

Tech companies like iFlytek and Baidu are now part of a growing industry leveraging AI to build tablets designed for learning. The iFlytek T20 Pro — the model Yang bought for her daughter — looks like an iPad but runs a modified version of Android. The device’s software is locked, which means children can’t download games or use other forms of entertainment. Instead, it comes with an array of apps that leverage Xinghuo, iFlytek’s large language model AI. These include a chatbot to converse with students in English, a gamified quiz tool to analyze test results, and OCR (optical character recognition) software that claims to be able to scan and grade handwritten essays like a teacher would. 

The iFlytek T20 model used by Lulu features an OCR software to scan and grade handwritten essays.

Driven by this new wave of tablets touting AI capabilities, the market for educational devices in China is projected to be worth $20 billion in 2026, according to the research firm Frost & Sullivan. Personal educational devices, like portable dictionaries, have existed in China for decades, but AI hype is reviving the industry as tech companies jump in. Baidu, one of China’s biggest tech companies, has a line of tablets built around its AI chatbot Ernie. Even livestream megastar Austin Li is now peddling educational tablets to parents on short-video app Douyin.

Another factor driving the demand for educational tablets is a government clampdown on tutoring. China’s after-school educational system is an enormous business: 137 million students took some form of out-of-school class in 2016. In an attempt to alleviate the pressure that students and parents face, the government ordered a review of 124,000 offline and 263 online education firms, and revoked the licenses of 96% of offline businesses and 87.1% of online ones. But while the supply of tutors is decreasing, the demand for them is as high as ever. Chen Hengyi, a primary school teacher in Wuhan, told Rest of World that almost all of the above-average students in his class still receive tutoring. That demand is causing prices for tutors to shoot up, forcing some parents to turn to alternative solutions for additional education — like AI tablets.

A study carried out by the consultancy firm iResearch found that 56.3% of surveyed parents expect to spend 10%–30% of their education budget on smart learning devices in the future, while 15.7% would be willing to spend over 40%, as their spending on tutoring declines. IFlytek’s business performance reflects the trend: According to the company’s financial report in the second quarter of 2023, educational devices and services comprised 29.14% of its revenue, with a gross profit margin of 48.64%, making education the largest and most profitable among iFlytek’s four listed service areas. 

Terry Hong, a parent of two boys in the coastal province of Shandong, told Rest of World she bought two different educational tablets for each of her kids. “I got an iFlytek AI tablet for my oldest, who is top of his class, because iFlytek is better for test preparation. For my younger son, I bought a BBK AI tablet because it’s better for younger kids who are struggling a bit,” Hong said. Melody Liu, a Chinese parent in Japan, bought an iFlytek tablet during a trip home, aiming to immerse her two children — aged 7 and 5 years — in Chinese K-12 education. “Chinese students are always learning more advanced material at the same grade level compared to their global peers,” Liu told Rest of World. “If they can keep up with the Chinese pace, schooling in Japan will be smooth sailing.”

Cities like Yang’s home of Xiangyang are at the center of this boom, with a sharp rise in shops dedicated to educational tablets: IFlytek claims it opened 768 stores in 2022, a 100% increase from 2021, and aims to expand rapidly in 2023. But a review of the company’s listed store locations on its WeChat mini-program by Rest of World found only 1,103 stores — most of which were in smaller, less-developed cities. Many of these regions lack educational resources and have limited opportunities, forcing parents to look elsewhere for after-school education.

The AI tablets have filled a gap in China’s education market, especially for parents in less-developed cities, who felt they were not competent enough to assist their children with school work and were less savvy about technology. “A well-marketed solution that targets [parents’] insecurities is very easy to sell,” Rui Ma, a China tech analyst and founder of the Tech Buzz China podcast and newsletter, told Rest of World. “The iFlytek machine is just such a neatly quantifiable device that I think it’s easy for them to make the investment.”

Despite the hype surrounding AI, education professionals told Rest of World these tools can have a limited impact on enhancing academic performance. “These tablets don’t offer much beyond resources already available online,” said Kelly Zhang, an experienced tutor and former employee of AI education company Squirrel AI.

“While I do mostly enjoy the AI software, the content feels like it’s made in a rush and lacks quality control.”

“Many teenagers don’t have the focus or self-motivation needed to make the most of these tablets,” said Edward Wang, a former contractor at Gankao, a leading test-prep company that has launched its own educational tablet. Wang, who has had over six years of experience as a tutor, was commissioned by Gankao to create a comprehensive test-prepping content system, including video lectures and exams, for the tablet. “Our data indicates that most video classes have an under 20% open rate and an under 10% completion rate,” he said. 

Hong, the parent in Shandong, said her children have benefited from studying with the tablet, although an effective learning session requires her supervision. Yang complained that the feature to scan handwritten essays only worked about half of the time, and spotted other factual errors in the material given to her daughter. “While I do mostly enjoy the AI software, the content feels like it’s made in a rush and lacks quality control,” she said.

Purchases from public school systems could be another factor driving tablet sales. A considerable number of iFlytek tablets are bought by public schools, according to an iFlytek sales agent who preferred to remain anonymous because of concerns about his job security. Wang, the contractor, attributes iFlytek’s success outside of retail largely to its strategic partnerships with local governments, which integrated the company’s products like AI tablets, smart whiteboards, and AI grading systems in the public schools’ daily operations. “IFlytek is not a company that can be defeated,” he said. 

Parents are sometimes pressured into purchasing these tablets by the school their children attend. Two parents interviewed by Rest of World claimed that teachers and school officials have pushed them to buy the tablet, by incorporating it in daily teaching. Despite the Chinese government’s 2022 ban on the compulsory sale of educational devices in schools, such mandates have persisted under the radar. The anonymous iFlytek sales agent told Rest of World that some schools have circumvented direct sales by imposing a “subscription fee” for tablet use on parents, who are billed every semester. 

IFlytek denied that the company was involved in any kind of partnership with public schools to force purchases on parents. 

Hong has made rigid study plans for her sons involving the AI tablet. After coming home from primary school, the boys have dinner, complete homework, and then study math and English for an hour each before they proceed to bedtime reading. All the additional learning happens with the help of educational tablets, usually under their mother’s supervision. “Both my boys are about one semester ahead of their school curriculum,” Hong said, with much pride.

Latest article