China’s Intelligent Education Initiative Is Not The Future of Education

Four or five years ago a few collaborators and I conducted an online hackathon where we set out to rethink education.

A few projects were born from that hackathon, of which one still exists. That whole experience taught us that it’s very hard for people to let go of the idea that one should educate oneself with the help of online tools like this law tutors online, and that people are just habituated to be educated from the top down.

This is a very important topic that has grand ramifications for the future of our society. There are countries, like Finland, who have an education model that works for everyone in their country. But one country that is taking citizen education to the extreme, and is an example of what not to do, is China.

China is conducting a social experiment on many levels, one for citizens and another for students. Imagine a world where cameras capture bird’s-eye-view footage of thousands of classrooms, in which every student is recognized, recorded, and assigned scores simply based on their positions and facial expressions. While it sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, this type of surveillance is happening now in China, in pilot programs at seven schools serving a total of 28,000 students.

The Disconnect, takes a look at the facial recognition technology and “intelligent education” initiative that China’s government hopes will boost the country’s education system.

Zhang takes out his phone and logs into a user account on CCS’s mobile app. The account belongs to a teacher at Chifeng No. 4 Middle School in the city of Chifeng in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The interface allows teachers to view scores for every student in class. A green down arrow appears next to the student’s score when it decreases, and a red up arrow when it increases. A bar graph shows how many minutes the student spent concentrating, sleeping, or talking in class.

“The parents can see it, too,” Zhang says, tapping on a student’s name. “For example, this student’s report shows that he rarely volunteers to answer the teacher’s questions in class. So his participation in English class is marked as low. Number of questions answered: one,” Zhang reads from the AI-generated report. “This week, the student spent 94.08 percent of class time focusing. His grade average is 84.64 percent. He spent 4.65 percent of the time writing, which was 10.57 percent lower than the grade average.”

Hangzhou No. 11 uses the “smart classroom behavioral management system” developed by Hangzhou-based Hikvision, the world’s largest manufacturer of video surveillance equipment. Like CCS, Hikvision’s facial recognition technology also monitors students using cameras installed above each classroom’s blackboard. In addition to in-class behaviors, which are divided into six categories—reading, writing, listening, standing up, raising hands, and lying on the desk—Hikvision also identifies seven different facial expressions: neutral, happy, sad, disappointed, angry, scared, and surprised. The data is used to generate a student’s score, which is displayed on a screen installed on the wall of each classroom. Each class’s overall attention level also displays on a huge screen in the hallway for the whole school to compare and rank.
One anonymous Hangzhou No. 11 student I found on the internet tells me she felt shocked and scared when the teacher demonstrated the system in front of the whole class. “The camera can magnify 25 times of what it captures,” she says, adding “It can see not only your face, but the characters on your notebook. After all, it’s from Hikvision.” Another student tells me his classmates were totally “crushed” after the installation of the system. Because the system gives students a public score, he and his classmates don’t dare nap or even yawn in class for fear of being penalized, an incentive that doesn’t necessarily increase focus on learning. In fact, the students spend their time focusing on staying awake until class ends. “Nobody leaves the classroom during the class break,” he says. “We all collapse on the desks, sleeping.”

Student surveillance is not the future of education

Does the above commentary seem like a fun way to get people to learn?

The above approach to education continues the tradition of “coerce and punish”, where students are monitored, ranked and forced into doing they don’t want to do. More importantly for me is this: you can’t force people to learn.

Also published on Medium.