‘The creative part of education will still be done by people’
Artificial Intelligence won’t completely replace teachers but it could make the weaker ones redundant, says Arnold Fu, founder of Hujiang EdTech
As a student entrepreneur, Arnold Fu set up what went on to become the online learning provider Hujiang EdTech. It is one of the rare billion dollar start-ups known as ‘unicorn companies’.
Here, he tells the Gazette what drove him to set it up, how he thinks artificial intelligence will revolutionise the job of the teacher, and how the internet could bring affordable education to China’s poorest and most remote communities.
Tell us the story of how you set up Hujiang and what motivated you.
Back in the days when most were busy making a fortune through selling language courses, I took a different road, a lonely road, and tried to realize my very own dream: an online platform which would create more equal access to educational resources. At the time, online education was getting little attention from entrepreneurs. I never dreamed I would be a millionaire; I simply hoped to help more people learn languages.
In 2001, when I was still a junior in college, I discovered that many people needed access to online language study. Not professionally trained, I managed to master programming and web design, as I had a strong belief that the internet should not be just seen as a means of entertainment. With great passion and faith, I launched a website that provided a platform for English learners to share resources and experiences. This later went on to become Hujiang EdTech.
Later in 2006, after five years of non-profit operation, as a fresh graduate, I was still determined to make my own way in the field of online education. It was a bold move, a reckless move one might think, because at that time, the online education industry was immature.
Together with seven other people, including schoolmates, friends and some of my users, we became the founding team of Hujiang EdTech. We borrowed 80,000 RMB (10,256 USD) as start-up capital and started the company. But Hujiang EdTech is driven by passion, not money. We want to make education easier, fairer, and more enjoyable, more importantly, serve the public good.
What were the challenges of setting up Hujiang?
I started Hujiang EdTech from scratch. All eight people in the initial team, including me, come from ordinary families. With the 80,000 RMB we borrowed, Hujiang started to function. The first year was really hard.
I still remember when we were turned down by the bank. With only one hundred thousand RMB, which was approximately equal to 12,500 USD, the bank repeatedly rejected our request to open a company account.
Hujiang EdTech now has something like 150 million users – who are they?
Hujiang EdTech’s main user base consists of three parts: our primary market, which is K-12, college students, and a range of office workers and white-collar professionals. We are constantly thinking about how we can develop products and services to meet their needs.
We specialise in offering foreign and domestic exam preparation, foreign language learning and professional skills preparation.
How do you go about recruiting appropriate staff for ‘live’ online learning?
We hire online teachers globally. Certified teachers with perfect English skills and teaching experience are preferred. We do train teachers on cultural awareness, the learner profile, language grading, interactive skills and so forth.
As learning progresses, the bonding and communication between the teacher and learners becomes more and more natural.
We look for teachers with a passion for online education, who have the knowledge and skills to teach online and a certain amount of tech ‘savvy’.
How do you maintain quality control over such a massive platform – is it a constant fight to make sure it doesn’t slip?
We have great research and development teams based in Beijing and Shanghai who have been key to developing intelligent online courses.
Early in March this year, HJCLASS (Hujiang Class), launched its first intelligent online course, and we plan to launch six more intelligent online courses in May.
We now have the ability to enable students with different levels of progress and learning levels to use different ways to attend the same courses. This is just like the traditional face-to-face way of teaching, but with higher efficiency and greater effectiveness.
Do you believe online learning can ever replace real-life lessons?
It is certain that in the future, Hujiang will be dedicated to AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology in education.
Products will be designed to satisfy the needs of different people and lessons will be personalised. At the same time, the contents and syllabuses of the courses will be dynamically adjusted according to how much progress they make.
Generally, AI will replace the repetitive tasks. However, the creative part of education will still be completed by people. In the future, education will be the combination of artificial intelligence and human intelligence, which means that the classical education and online education will be firmly integrated.
The development of AI provides opportunities for smart people, but not the teachers who are less hard-working and terrible at their jobs. Once AI replaces the repetitive parts which teachers do not like, teachers who are capable and passionate could have more creative tasks. Teachers who are incompetent at their jobs will have no choice but to be teaching assistants.
On the other hand, teachers who are thoughtful and diligent will do what the AI cannot do: including the grasp of human nature and character building of the children. All of these could probably be realized in the coming decades.
What is the next big step for Hujiang? Are you planning to go more ‘global’ or is the Chinese market still the key?
We are accelerating our global progress with a number of partnerships with foreign companies. But in terms of the next big step, as the technology of AI continues to evolve, Hujiang EdTech will generally shift focus to intelligent learning in the future.
The Hu+ Project
In October 2015, Hujiang Edtech launched the Hu+ Project, an education charity program providing online education tools and other resources, free of charge, to elementary and middle schools in rural and underdeveloped areas of China. The aim of the project is to connect rural schools with learning resources through the company’s interactive online teaching platform CCtalk. Currently, the Hu+ Project has reached 500,000 students from over 1,000 schools in 30 provinces. It has also attracted many educators, institutions, and non-profit organizations to contribute their resources.
Mr Fu said: ‘The aim of the project is to help raise awareness and promote education equality in China, enabling elementary and secondary schools to connect with high-quality educational resources, and gradually narrow the educational gap between rural and urban areas.’