Squirrel Seeks English-Speaking Nut

In 2015 I heard about AltSchool. It was a startup. Had raised $100 million.

My friend Matt Candler told me: “They hired a bunch of software engineers. But they don’t know what problem to solve. They told me they were improving how to take attendance. I explained that wasn’t really so hard for teachers to handle. It didn’t strike me as a problem that needed technology to solve.”

This year AltSchool pretty much called it quits, though not entirely. The money is all gone.

VC investors love to hear the technology story. Love, love, love.

But in the education context, sometimes the start-ups involve technology in search of a problem (so there is a narrative to attract investment), rather than to solve a problem.

China has a lot of VC-backed

education companies. From The Star:

Squirrel AI Learning, a Shanghai-based online after-school tutoring company, plans to expand into foreign markets in two years by developing an English-language curriculum for mathematics as well as Mandarin lessons for non-native speakers.

Prospective students are first put through a diagnostic test to assess which areas in the subject they are weak at. The artificial intelligence algorithms will then cater the tutoring to focus on the areas of weakness, reducing the amount of time spent on unneeded tutoring by 80%, according to Liang.

I am skeptical of the 80% figure….unless you have a really dumb tutor. It’s not usually that hard for a human tutor to figure out the area of weakness.

What I hope their AI team is working on is more about explaining the concepts to someone who is confused – that’s the hard part.

To be sure, it is a crowded field. Liang estimates there are at least 60 companies in China that market AI technology for education and the industry as a whole is booming.

Even though it bills itself as an online teaching company, there is still a need for physical learning centres because many parents, especially those in the smaller and lesser-developed cities, place value in having the children learn in a structured environment like a classroom, rather than on their own at home, where they might easily be distracted, Liang said.

In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, ironically, parents are too busy to send their children to tutoring classes and prefer to have them study on their own at home.

Demand is highest in remote areas in China where the local system may not have the best teachers, Liang said. In many places, the teachers have to teach three to four subjects.

Squirrel charges lower fees for its services in less well-off parts of China.

I will be fascinated to see how this company does in providing math tutoring to English speakers.