Bringing AI to online education in China

Interview with Derek Li, Founder of Squirrel AI

A perfectionist at heart, Derek Li is working on perfecting an AI algorithm that will improve the impacts of tutoring in China; a market where most students continue their education after hours with a tutor. We sat down with Derek to talk about market dynamics and next steps for Squirrel AI.

As a student, Derek aspired to be a mathematician. He traveled across China to partake in mathematics competitions as a means to explore the country and challenge his intellect.  Derek realized that for mathematics to truly make an impact, he had to bring it into the market and instead became an entrepreneur.

Derek graduated from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and returned to his hometown of Zhengzhou to start his own business. He co-founded the ‘Dashan English Training School’. Later, he joined ‘Only Education’, a company that, over the ten years he was there, grew to over 2,000 learning centers, with a market value of 13 billion RMB. Drawing on these experiences, he founded Squirrel AI on the idea that students should be able to study online at home or offline in learning centers, receiving a combined education from the AI teaching system and live teachers.

DL: I have found that large-scale online courses are not meeting the needs of the individual student. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, our internal research shows that students can’t concentrate on computer learning for more than 14 minutes on average, and most students can only concentrate for around five minutes. Secondly, the user experience is not good; while different students have different difficulties, the same teaching method is applied to all. Thirdly, there is usually a lack of meaningful communication and interaction between the student and the course material.

With these insights in mind, I saw two great opportunities when I founded Squirrel AI. One is that AI technology is at a point where it can disrupt the education industry that has not changed for hundreds of years, by providing every single child with access to the best teacher for that individual child’s needs. This is the unrealized dream of every educator! The other is that, in addition to knowledge, AI education is able to teach the children methodologies and thought processes that use creativity and imagination as part of their learning, so that every child can improve their performance in school. This is of great value to the development of human society as 
a whole.

DL: AI technology is at a point where it can disrupt the education industry that has not changed for hundreds of years, by providing every single child with access to the best teacher for that individual child’s needs.

"AI technology is at a point where it can disrupt the education industry that has not changed for hundreds of years, by providing every single child with access to the best teacher for that individual child’s needs.”
Founded 2014 NGP Capital invested 2017 Squirrel AI Learning is the first pure-play AI-powered adaptive education provider in China.

Content, teaching and adaptive AI all in one offering

Squirrel AI offers a student-centric, intelligent, and personalized adaptive learning system. It applies adaptive AI technology to teaching, learning, evaluation, testing, training, and other educational processes. By simulating top-grade teachers, it gives children tailor-made, one-on-one education programs and processes, which exponentially improves the worth of the education each child receives.

At first, Squirrel AI used a mixed education mode, consisting of 70% AI system teaching and 30% teacher assistance. Students could study online, at home, or offline in learning centers. This combined education taught by AI as well as by live teachings. So far, the company has opened more than 1,800 offline learning centers in China, with footprints in over 300 cities in more than 20 provinces. Their cumulative student number has reached nearly two million, with a continuation rate of about 80%.

From 2017 to 2018, Squirrel AI took on six man-to-machine challenges with top teachers in the area and won them all. Squirrel AI proved that the technology was matured enough to replace human teachers, so they offered it as a fully digital service. The company recruited Professor Tom Mitchell from Carnegie Mellon University as Chief AI Scientist leading and strengthening the technological development of Squirrel AI. Squirrel AI currently ranks as one of the top two AI-based intelligent adaptive learning (IAL) systems globally.

DL: The biggest difference between Squirrel AI and our global competitors is that they only provide the adaptive AI engine; they don’t provide content or teaching services. We execute a “three-in-one” strategy, meaning we provide content, teaching services, and an adaptive AI engine, all together in 
a single offering.

"We execute a “three-in-one” strategy, meaning we provide content, teaching services, and an adaptive AI engine, all together in 
a single offering.”

DL: The advantage of our three-in-one strategy is that all of the content is tailored to our adaptive AI system, significantly improving both the accuracy of the information and the teaching results, compared with companies that provide only an adaptive AI engine. Compared with companies that provide only teaching services, we not only save 70% of the cost of teachers but also greatly improve the quality of teachers.

So far, Squirrel AI has opened more than 2,300 offline learning centers in China, with footprints in over 300 cities.
The perfectionist’s advice to other ­entrepreneurs

Derek, who is known in the industry for his perfectionism, advises other entrepreneurs to critically consider the details. Squirrel AI's business model is the result of deep thinking, iteration, and polishing over the past six years. The algorithm has experienced thousands of self-questioning events, scrutinized countless answers, and survived numerous tests by various experts.

DL: My next goal is to make Squirrel AI truly change the 
history of human education. My goal for Squirrel AI is to increase the learning efficiency of every child by ten times and to achieve tailored, individualistic education so that every child can become his or her best and most confident self. Our goal is to make sure that children flourish not 
only in their education but also in their life.