Companies using emerging tech products to make education more immersive for young children
Collating the mistakes of her school tests used to be a nightmare for Lin Yimeng, a 15-year-old student from Beijing, and several of her friends. Nightmare, because it needed a lot of time and effort to find the right answers to the problems, an exercise often deemed as an effective solution for self-improvement.
Yimeng has to find answers to five to 20 mistakes for each of her seven subjects, which means an additional hour of studies after her daily homework."Since I am in the last year of junior high school, every minute of sleep is precious to me, not to mention the shortage of an hour," she said.
But hope is around the corner for Yimeng and her friends in the form of an intelligent question answering device called Paperang. Developed by Chinese online education startup Zuoyebang, the gadget helps Yimeng to take a picture of the mistakes with her mobile phone. The gadget will automatically print out the question and the answer based on the image.
The product has proved to be a boon for millions of Chinese students and also for the makers of other intelligent education products like e-dictionary pens, robots, educational tablets and smart lights. Such products are becoming increasingly popular with students in China, thanks to their use of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence to find solutions for the vexing problems of students.
"The new gadget comes embedded with a question bank of 250 million questions. We can also use it to look for the right answers by just taking pictures. We can watch the teachers' guidance via video at the same time, and it serves as a supplementary tool for the traditional way of learning," said Yimeng.
It is also important for hybrid studies, where students leverage tech-powered learning tools and online study platforms, a model that has become immensely popular after the COVID-19 pandemic, said industry experts.
Some 56 countries and regions closed schools temporarily due to the pandemic. The UNESCO estimates that academic schedules of nearly 850 million young students across the world have been disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"After the four-month-long study at home due to COVID-19-related lockdowns, Chinese students as well as their parents have higher requirements for learning, especially for more intelligent and personalized solutions," said Wang Heng, head of Duojing Capital Research Institute.
The demand is spawning a potential multibillion-dollar global market for companies. According to Duojing Capital Research Institute, China's intelligent education hardware market will reach 57 billion yuan ($8.7 billion) in the next two years.
This year, the country's smart hardware market will soon enter a trillion-yuan scale with an expected sales revenue of 1.08 trillion yuan by the end of the year, said market consultancy iiMedia Research.
A QuestMobile report showed that the sector saw 56 funding deals during the first three months of 2020, despite such deals stagnating due to the coronavirus epidemic.
"Sales of intelligent education hardware devices have risen sharply as young and affluent parents in China, especially from the middle-income group, are willing to spend more for their children's technology requirements," said Wang.
Hangzhou, Zhejiang province-based Cheng Quping, 43, a father of two children, paid 2,900 yuan for an intelligent small-sized robot. The doll-like robot can talk, tell stories in both Chinese and English and even run after his kids.
When Cheng is away on business trips, he can also view and chat with his kids through the robot. "Such robots play a key role in helping children grow up and are a boon for parents who are busy with other chores," he said.
Cheng said it was a relief that the robot can perform some educational functions and at the same time take care of their first child, especially after the birth of the couple's second child three years ago.
"The country's education industry has reached a critical stage, where the intelligence level of online education needs to be enhanced further," said Chen Jing, vice-president of Blue Elephant Capital, an investor in the education technology field.
She said the current intelligent hardware has various types of functions. Virtual reality equipment and smart speakers help extend hearing, touch, perception and vision. There are also other types of devices that are used to solve the specific needs of children, such as translators and reading machines.
"Yet another type deals with wearables, which children can use in any kind of scenario, that are portable and profitable," she said.
In some verticals, China is already one of the largest markets for intelligent education hardware. A latest report from market consultancy Counterpoint said that the country is dominating the smartwatch sector by accounting for more than three out of every five devices sold.
Currently, several local companies are rushing into the intelligent hardware sector, including tech giants, such as ByteDance, Tencent Holdings, NetEase Inc and Xiaomi Corp, as well as leading internet firms such as iFlytek.
ByteDance recently launched a smart lamp, which has an embedded camera which enables parents to monitor the homework progress of their children. The light, which comes with a screen, also guides children when they encounter problems while doing their homework.
The move marks the company's first attempt in the intelligent education hardware market. It has also started research and development on several other products like pocket learning printers, early childhood machines and e-dictionary pens.
Zhou Feng, CEO of NetEase Youdao, the online education brand of Chinese tech leader NetEase Inc, said intelligent education hardware products are different from the previous learning hardware, in that they are more smarter than expected.
"In the long run, NetEase Youdao is positioned as an intelligent learning company, where users learn partly through online courses and partly through hardware. Intelligent hardware and online products are important and can supplement each other," he said.
NetEase Youdao launched its latest dictionary pen recently. With an average accuracy of 98.3 percent, the gadget is able to offer a "click and check" experience wherein users can search for a translation instantly with a simple click.
According to the company's earnings report for the third quarter of this year, intelligent learning hardware contributed revenue of 163 million yuan, a year-on-year growth of 289.3 percent.
During the third quarter of 2020, it shipped nearly 250,000 second-generation dictionary pens, making it the firm's second largest source of revenue.
As intelligent education hardware products continue to gain traction, challenges have also risen. Some parents are sceptical that excessive exposure to electronic devices may harm their children's eyesight, while others are concerned that children will be excessively reliant on such products than their own thinking.
Wang from Duojing Capital Research Institute said that the supply chain for hardware products is relatively mature and production costs are relatively transparent.
"More efforts are needed for companies to forge innovations in design, research and development, production and sales to differentiate from competition," he said.