Can AI Powered Education Close The Global Gender Gap?

Education is one of the most powerful predictors of future success that human society has at its disposal. How we gather, process, and disseminate knowledge to each successive generation impacts not just individual success, but a host of other related factors such as economic growth, political empowerment, and technological innovation. It is no secret that access to more effective education for individual students is a key factor in the overall betterment of society – and to women’s role in society.

I’ve long been a proponent of better education for women – from my early career days working for CARE, to becoming the Chief Strategy Officer of Top Scholar, contributing to the book “Innovating Women” and to founding a non-profit to help the disadvantaged attain better education. Recently, I’ve been looking around globally for innovative solutions that can leapfrog women’s education forward.

Thankfully, numerous national and global organizations have better education for women amongst their top priorities. The World Economic Forum uses Educational Attainment as one of its four subindexes in its annual analysis of the Global Gender Gap, along with Economic Participation & Opportunity, Political Empowerment, and Health & Survival. Educational Attainment also has direct impacts on the other three measures; it is an accurate predictor of future income potential, political engagement, and personal health outcomes. For women and girls, achieving equity in education is a vital part of diminishing the gender gap around the world.

By the World Economic Forum’s standards, educational parity has been achieved in the U.S. Boys and girls born in the U.S. now have approximately equal access to education. However, just because American citizens have equal access to education does not mean that each individual is getting the best possible education for them. We see the results of this on a daily basis. Only rich families can afford to send their kids to private schools with better quality education. And of course, kids graduating from private schools have a much greater chance of attending the top universities in the U.S. But, even though the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world, it still places only 38th in global mathematical performance, and women made up less than 24% of those employed in STEM occupations in 2015. This creates lost opportunities for American society as a whole, and especially for women.


Turning to China, The World Economic Forum’s World Sex Gap Report 2017 showed that Chinese women were only at the 100th place in the world and the last in the health category. Education for women in China, up until recently, has been fraught with limitations and obstacles including the gender stereotype that mathematics are hard for girls. In the workplace, there were only 11% of women at higher-level roles at the provincial and ministerial level and above in 2009. This is in part because previously, it was considered unnecessary for Chinese girls to be educated because of the general expectation that men are responsible for working and supporting the family financially. The Chinese Entrepreneur database indicates that in only 4 out of the 86 Chinese companies valued over 100 billion RMB have women leaders at CEO or chairman positions. In China, only the students in the first or second tier cities can access good-quality education. Even in the first tier cities, people have to buy “School-District” apartments in order to enter good schools. For example, it costs around $22000/square meter for one “School District” apartment, where other district is only $7000 per square meter. Parents have to sell all their assets and take out loans to pay for the “School District” apartments. This is the unequal education situation all over China.

In my search to for more innovative solutions to dramatically improve women’s education nationally and abroad, I found an AI centered education company, Squirrel AI Learning. I was able to meet with the team here in Silicon Valley, and was blown away by the genuineness and passion of the team members to see their work benefit all.

Derek Haoyang Li, Founder and Chairman of Squirrel AI Learning of Yixue Group, told me this: “There is potential for a small grasshopper to jump 2 meters, but if you put it in a box with a cover, it can only jump to the height of the box – say half a meter.” In a way, low quality education can be considered that box – hindering and limiting individual’s potential.

From an early age, Li was fascinated with the power that education held for individuals decided to dedicate his life to improving the world by improving education. In high school, he would often give lectures to other students in his self-study class. He recalls one student who, no matter how many times he gave her a lesson, could not improve her scores. After a year without progress, Li came to a realization. “I can’t teach her at my pace, I have to teach her at her own pace. Once I realized that, I was able to help her.” That student later got into one of the top 100 schools in China.

“At the time, I was intrigued by how complicated education is and thought about why education is the same for every student when they don’t learn the same way. Every kid is not born equal. Every kid is different, and every student is different, and they all need something different. I like to find the method of learning first.” Yet efficiencies in education are hard to find. Li used his insight and experiences tutoring others to develop methods of learning and teaching in order to help his classmates. With his guidance, Li’s students performed better than millions of other students around the country. When I remarked on how remarkable his successes in learning and teaching are, he simply said, “I always think, ‘How can I help people?’ It was in the family to help people, I think it’s in my blood.”

Currently, the best education is the most expensive. “Inside China,” Li says, “the after-school tutoring market is $100 billion. Parents in Japan and Korea are spending 10 times more than other parents on each average child in the world.” In China, only the rich families and families with good connections have the opportunity to get their kids to enter the best schools. These families also need to live in the first and second tier cities as the highest quality teaching resources are there. But the increased spending doesn’t always translate to increased performance. “Even in the best private schools, they have different quality ranges. My high school was number one in the province – but still – some teachers gave the quality of the latest iPhone and some gave the quality of an old Nokia. I think our brain is limited by the quality of teachers when we were going through the traditional school system.” It’s true that, even in the top universities only the best teachers can provide the highest quality of teaching.

Prior to founding Squirrel AI Learning, Li co-founded Only International Education Group (SSE: 600530.SH) and established more than 2,000 subsidiary schools over 10 years. He then led the company to a successful IPO as the first listed education company with market cap of $1.9 Billion in China.

Beginning in 2005, Li experimented with all types of courses and platforms including MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). When everyone thought MOOCs were blooming, Li predicted that MOOCs were in the process of dying a speech at an international education conference. The chair of the conference asked Li how he could make such prediction in front of Coursera’s founder, especially as Coursera’s market value was experiencing a meteoric rise from $100 million to $1 Billion. Li’s prediction was based on observing that students enrolled in MOOCs couldn’t concentrate for a long time on the long lessons and exercises, and that MOOCs had very low completion rates. “Teaching at the same pace and with the same content to all students wasn’t and is not right.” Instead, Li wanted to tailor the pace of education to the strengths of the student, as he had done with the classmates he had tutored to success in middle school.

In October 2014, Li stepped down from his CEO and Vice Board Chairman positions at the China’s A-Shares listed company Only Education, even with a stable annually increase of 30%, to found Squirrel AI Learning. He believes that AI can provide the personalized – and thus the best quality education for each individual student based on their differences.

“It’s difficult for an education company to become global. Even in different provinces in China, they have different policies. AI can solve that problem. AI can recognize the infinite and nano-scaled elements from the education. These chemical elements can constitute infinite organic substances. ” Li said. “In the past 100 years, we have uplifted about 90 percent of people out poverty, virtually eliminated illiteracy, and made progress on health and sanitation for all. In the next 100 years, AI can solve inequality in education, thus closing the gender gap and allowing all to better succeed in life.” His ultimate goal for the world is for all students to be able to thrive, and Li believes that individualized education utilizing the power of AI is the only way to achieve that goal. “With AI, opportunity is unlimited.”

Squirrel AI Learning focuses on making that dream a reality. The platform, centered on intelligent adaptive education, has a joint lab with Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in AI education, and another joint lab with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). The team at Squirrel AI Learning is composed of scientists and technologists from Knewton, ALEKS, RealizeIT and more, and also has the Dean of the School of Computer Science of CMU, Professor Tom Mitchell, as its Chief AI Officer.

Utilizing artificial intelligence to provide students with a personalized learning plan and one-on-one tutoring with human coaching as needed, Squirrel AI Learning offers high-quality after-school courses in subjects such as Math, English, Chinese, Physics, and Chemistry. Powered by its proprietary AI-driven adaptive engine and custom-built courseware, the Squirrel AI Learning platform employs models and algorithms such as knowledge space theory, genetic algorithm, Bayesian knowledge tracing, and etc. to evaluate students’ knowledge mastery, learning ability and methods. The platform then provides the most efficient learning path for each individual student based on the thorough assessment of their strength, weaknesses, abilities, learning paces and even personalities. “Right now, the AI model can teach students very well…The machine will teach and, the teachers will support and provide the human touch and encouragement” Li shared.

The platform is proving quite effective. The first AI vs. Human competition in Asia Pacific was held by Squirrel AI Learning in October 2017. It organized three subsequent competitions this year, with all of the competitions administered and monitored by third party notaries. The certified and published results showed that Squirrel AI Learning teaching delivered 7 – 9% higher learning gains over human teachers using traditional teaching methods. The human teachers who participated in the experiments were all top-level teachers in China. The platform has shown better results not only in a1:15 teacher to student ratio control group but also against a 1:3 ratio control group in both student efficacy and engagement measurements.

“In the past, I would take around 100 days a year for holidays and vacations, now I take only 2 days,” Li told me. “I have obtained enough fortune for myself and my family’s whole life time from my first company’s IPO. And now, I am on the way of achieving my mission to help the kids in the world with equal education. And this might change the whole generation and humanity’s development. This is the future, and that’s why I treat me so hard. I think it’s worth it.” Li has given most of Squirrel AI Learning’s shares to the team. “I will also donate most of my shares to the charity in the future. This is a big mission and vision. I am 100% into it.”

With the power of AI, Squirrel AI Learning is also able to cut costs, charging much less than private schools for broader access. The company is also conscious of those who can’t afford even the reduced cost, and donated 1 million free accounts to poor families with the commitment to donate millions more accounts in the future.

Even with lower prices than traditional schooling and millions of free accounts available for the underprivileged, Squirrel AI Learning is starting to make profit – and they are of the only AI education company that currently turns profit among all the AI education and online education companies in China – both in cash flow and in net income. Over the course of 2 years, Squirrel AI Learning opened 1600 schools, all with the same high-quality standards. In the next two years, Squirrel AI Learning hopes to be in the top 5 education companies in China and to expand its platform to other countries.

What’s next for Li and Squirrel AI Learning is how to incorporate EQ (a measure of emotional intelligence) and creativity into the platform. This comes from Li’s personal experience in recognizing the need to high EQ in order to thrive. When he was young, Li experienced social anxiety and had a lower EQ. It was something he needed to improve if he was to become an entrepreneur – his heart’s desire – and so he set out to learn it. He read all the books he could get his hands on but made no progress, until he decided to break down EQ in 20 smaller, more easily digested skill sets. The 20 skill sets of EQ include the ability to observe, finding other people’s interest when talking, tolerance and even the ability to find excuses to forgive someone.

Li now wants to merge such EQ learning experience into the Squirrel AI Learning, cultivating students to be smarter and also more socially literate. If students are able to expand their potential in knowledge, skills, and the capacity to effectively communicate and collaborate, the possibilities for the future are endless.

All of the progress on the individual education level can have colossal global impact. Currently, lack of education and lack of the opportunity to learn effectively is at the core of many of the world’s most pressing problems. Political turmoil, man-made disasters, gender discrimination, poverty, hunger, disease – all would be lessened if each individual human were educated more efficiently and more personally. It’s not to say that better education will solve all of the world’s problems, but rather that better education makes all of the world’s problems easier to solve by creating many more capable problem-solvers.

What Squirrel AI Learning is doing is to solve the problem of education equality and accessibility. People – women and men – can have the same high-quality of education no matter where they are.

Providing better education to individuals globally can, in my opinion, close the gender gap. Access to more effective education increases women’s abilities to earn income, boosts political engagement and participation, and provides them the support necessary to make lifestyle decisions that dramatically increase wellbeing, productivity and personal income. By creating AI systems that aim to better education on the individual student level, we are creating an easier path to achieving greater societal success for all – women included.


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