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Tencent-backed AI startup checks students’ math homework


In China, there is a big culture of ‘practice makes perfect’. As such, school homework is a battlefield not only for Chinese children, but also for their parents, and teachers, who have the task of reviewing assignments.

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Technology is increasingly lending a helping hand, though, and now, a Beijing-based online education startup has developed an artificial intelligence-powered math app that can check children’s arithmetic problems through a simple snap of a photo. Based on the image and its internal database, the app automatically checks whether the answers are right or wrong.

Known as Xiaoyuan Kousuan, the free app launched by the Tencent Holdings-backed online education firm, has gained increasing popularity in China since its launch a year ago. It claims to have checked an average of 70 million arithmetic problems per day, saving users around 40,000 hours of time in total.

Yuanfudao is also trying to build the country’s biggest education-related database generated from the everyday experiences of real students. Using this, the six-year-old company, which has a long line of big-name investors, including Warburg Pincus, IDG Capital, and Matrix Partners China, aims to reinvent how children are taught in China.

“By checking nearly 100 million problems every day, we have developed a deep understanding of the kind of mistakes students make when facing certain problems,” said Li Xin, co-founder of Yuanfudao (which means “ape tutor” in Chinese) in a recent interview. “The data gathered through the app can serve as a pillar for us to provide better online education courses.”

Yuanfudao is China’s second largest online education unicorn by valuation, according to CB Insights. It is behind VipKid, which uses an online platform to connect Chinese students with North America-based teachers to learn English via livestreaming.

Yuanfudao’s flagship app covers different subjects including math, English, and chemistry. Li said the firm has built a database with student answers to 6 billion questions. He said this know-how has enabled Yuanfudao to better analyze individual students, helping it towards the ultimate goal of providing tailor-made courses and homework.

Li said the company’s aim is to “dramatically improve education efficiency in China.”

“Giving different homework to different students even if they study in the same class is even more difficult than providing different news to different readers based on their individual interests and tastes,” said Li. “What we do requires a more accurate profiling of students.”

Li said that the company’s flagship online tutoring app can produce a basic profile of a student’s strengths and weaknesses based on their answers to three to five questions.

Founded in 2012, Yuanfudao, which has 200 million users (2 million of whom are paid users) bagged US$300 million in a round of funding in late December, valuing the company at more than US$3 billion. The Chinese online education market is hot, attracting increased interest from technology giants such as Tencent, Baidu, and NetEase in recent years.

“We don’t really need money, but investors insist […] [on offering more funds]. We still had US$100 million in our bank account before landing this round,” said Li. He said the company was immune to the so-called tech winter, which has seen the venture capital pool almost dry up in China recently.

Despite a recent slowing of China’s economy, the country’s online education market – covering children from kindergarten age to high school – is set to triple to 150 billion yuan (US$22.33 billion) by 2022, according to data from iResearch, fueled by ambitious “tiger” parents who are prepared to invest heavily in their children’s after-school education.

Li said it was not his intention to make children work harder.

“We don’t want children to drown in a sea of homework,” he said. “In the old days, you needed to put in lots of work and practice to stand out. But now technology can make a change.”

Using AI technologies, the company has already made it possible to recommend different courses to students based on their individual progress on a certain subject. Li said the company can even help to close the educational gap between developed and underdeveloped regions in China through a deep analysis of students’ homework.

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The company has another popular homework assistant app, Xiaoyuan Souti, which uses similar image recognition technology to find answers to student questions across a range of subjects, guiding them through the steps needed to solve particular problems.

“Through the app, we know exactly what kind of questions teachers in Shanghai assign as homework to students,” Li said. “By collecting the information and studying it, we can enable students in the rest of China to have access to Shanghai’s education resources, in the long run [providing] a fair education environment for all children.”

“At the end of the day, the only thing that matters in education is one’s curiosity and cognitive ability,” he said.