Deep within a building shaped like the Starship Enterprise, a little-known Chinese company is working on the future of education. Vast banks of servers record children at work and play, tracking touchscreen swipes, shrugs and head swivels - amassing a database that will be used to build intimate profiles of millions of kids.
This is the Fuzhou hive of NetDragon Websoft Holdings Ltd. a hack-and-slash videogame maker and unlikely candidate to transform learning via headset-mounted virtual reality teachers. It’s one of a growing number of companies from International Business Machines Corp. to Lenovo Group Ltd. studying how to use technology like VR to arrest a fickle child’s attention. (And perhaps someday to make a mint from that data by showing them ads.)
China - where parents have been known to try anything to give their kids an edge and tend to be less obsessive about privacy - may be an ideal testing ground for the VR classroom of the future. As it’s envisioned, there’ll be no napping in the back row. Lessons change when software predicts a student’s mind is wandering by spotting an upward tilt of the head. Dull lectures can be immediately livened up with pop quizzes. Even the instructor’s gender can change to suit the audience, such as making the virtual educator male in cultures where teachers are typically men.
“It is the next big thing and it’s been brewing for quite some time,” said Jan-Martin Lowendahl, a research vice president with Gartner Inc. "If there’s any place it would work, it’s China, Korea, those kinds of places.”
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“It’s hugely revolutionary and it’s also necessary because it’s obvious that the current educational models do not scale.”
The notion of adaptive, computer-based teaching has bounced around for more than a decade. Done right, it’s got the potential to fundamentally alter learning. Educators who’ve relied on their gut and visual cues could be replaced or augmented by digital avatars powered by algorithms, which can in turn be replicated across the planet. Advocates argue that the benefits of using machines to scrutinize children and learning to adapt to their foibles will outweigh questions of privacy because soon there won’t be enough human teachers.
“There’s no way we can deal with it without adding scalable learning technologies,” Lowendahl said.
Of course, the growing corporate involvement isn’t altruistic -- there’s money to be made, and by some accounts Chinese companies are taking the lead in commercialization. NetDragon wants to become among the first to put it in practice on a larger scale. It paid 77 million pounds ($100 million) for British online education provider Promethean World Plc last year and now serves 2.2 million teachers with 40 million pupils. It’s field-testing VR lessons, handing out headsets and tablets in Chinese schools and encouraging teachers to try out tailored curricula on their kids.
Researchers then track pupils’ activity within the VR environment; as a complement to that, tablets come with cameras that can be used to visually monitor students.
“Not only do we want to track it when they’re in the classroom, we want to track it when they’re on the go, when they’re mobile or when they’re at home so we can have a 360-view of how kids learn,” NetDragon vice chairman and former Microsoft executive Simon Leung said, adding that the technology might be ready by 2017. “Once we can monitor their likes and dislikes, for example, you can recommend different services to them, very targeted advertising to them.”
All the companies interviewed emphasized that data would only be collected with the explicit permission of legal guardians. But it remains unclear how parents will take to having computers interpret their child’s every move. And each school will need to be sold on the benefits of a technology that could eventually supplant them.
Taking a step further into the realm of science fiction, a person’s behavior in digital environments offers clues as to their ability to learn, their creativity and even afflictions like Alzheimer’s disease, said Andrea Stevenson Won an associate professor who studies humans in virtual reality environments at Cornell University.
“I really don’t, as a citizen, love the idea of someone being able to track aspects of my behavior and make predictions about a medical condition I might have, and also be able to advertise directly to me,” she said.
Useful digital teachers can only be built by feeding the data of millions into computers that then find patterns and turn them into action. Other outfits like Massachusetts Institute of Technology spin-off Affectiva Inc. and Israeli start-up Beyond Verbal Communication aim to learn what users are thinking based on facial expressions and vocal patterns. Apart from NetDragon, Lenovo unit Stoneware is installing tracking technology in classrooms.
But while companies in the West have built the technology, they’re wary of using it on children. Chinese businesses are less so, which is why some are taking the lead in monetizing it through education. Henry Lau, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who helps run a VR lab called the “imseCAVE,” sticks (adult) subjects in an interactive simulation box and then studies them while they drive virtual cranes or subdue criminals with mace.
“The American focus is definitely on technology initially whereas a lot of Chinese companies tend to make use of cost-effective platforms to develop the content,” said Lau, who adds that coders are cheaper in China. "We’re working with companies in Beijing that are developing and booming a lot in what we call e-learning software.”
Chalapathy Neti is vice president of education innovation on IBM’s Watson team, which is building profiles of students around the world. Asian parents have proven to be more willing than those in the West to let their children take part, he agreed. But the researcher says the boost in learning created by combining VR and interactivity could be incredible.
“In a virtual reality lesson if a student pauses and stares at stars in the sky and he’s looking at one in particular, I’ll know there’s interest in that particular field,” he said. "When my children went to the zoo they weren’t looking at the animals but were focused on the engine of the train we were in - these guys now are in the automotive industry.”