China has started a grand experiment in AI education. It could reshape how the world learns.

Karen Hao:

Experts agree AI will be important in 21st-century education—but how? While academics have puzzled over best practices, China hasn’t waited around. In the last few years, the country’s investment in AI-enabled teaching and learning has exploded. Tech giants, startups, and education incumbents have all jumped in. Tens of millions of students now use some form of AI to learn—whether through extracurricular tutoring programs like Squirrel’s, through digital learning platforms like 17ZuoYe, or even in their main classrooms. It’s the world’s biggest experiment on AI in education, and no one can predict the outcome.

Silicon Valley is also keenly interested. In a report in March, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation identified AI as an educational tool worthy of investment. In his 2018 book Rewiring Education, John Couch, Apple’s vice president of education, lauded Squirrel AI. (A Chinese version of the book is coauthored by Squirrel’s founder, Derek Li.) Squirrel also opened a joint research lab with Carnegie Mellon University this year to study personalized learning at scale, then export it globally.

But experts worry about the direction this rush to AI in education is taking. At best, they say, AI can help teachers foster their students’ interests and strengths. At worst, it could further entrench a global trend toward standardized learning and testing, leaving the next generation ill prepared to adapt in a rapidly changing world of work.

As one of the largest AI education companies in China, Squirrel highlights this tension. And as one of the best-poised to spread overseas, it offers a window into how China’s experiments could shape the rest of the world.