Technology has shaped every part of our lives, including how we work, what we buy and where we consume content. It has the power to open the world and make opportunity more accessible than ever, and this is especially true in China, where artificial intelligence is key to unlocking the power of English language learning for millions of people. English language skills have long been a crucial career advancement tool in China; however, students’ learning objectives have evolved to prioritize travel- and lifestyle-specific language as the world becomes more connected.
“Students’ learning needs have been steadily changing over the last decade as technology has proliferated our lives,” said Sam Cheung, President, Commercial Management for EF English Centers. “As their needs and abilities have become more fragmented, there’s become a real demand for flexible learning resources that can help adult students speak English confidently anytime, anywhere and in any way they’d want.”
With this in mind, the team at EF Education First seized the opportunity to use artificial intelligence in English language teaching; while linear learning programs – those through which learners must complete one module before moving to the next – have long been the norm, their rigid structures often leave students’ pain points unaddressed.
EF EdTech, EF’s global research and development team, and EF English Centers in China used intuitive artificial intelligence and EF’s education expertise to launch a new course series called EF Smart+, which combines state-of-the-art curriculum with a hybrid format model, cutting-edge tech and personalized learning.
EF Smart+ uses data analysis to make customized content recommendations based on students’ needs and preferences; for example, if a student is interested in learning English for use at work, their learning material tailors itself to focus on professional skills, and they will spend less time on travel or general lifestyle topics. The interactive system makes recommendations that help students to pursue the path most relevant to their goals.
“Before Smart+, students might jump between units without having mastered the content necessary for positive learning outcomes because they were being forced to study topics that didn’t interest them,” said Mike Li, Product Owner for Adult Products for EF EdTech. “Now, students have the flexibility to pick and choose among the topics that best suit them, and we’ll work together to develop a plan that gets them to where they want to be.”
Other additions include an artificial intelligence-driven speech recognition system based on EF’s proprietary database of pronunciation data, which helps students master authentic spoken English; oral assessments administered by EF teachers at the end of each module; and customized learning plans developed in tandem with EF staff to help students meet their goals.
EF Smart+ students complete classwork via a hybrid model that uses online group learning, online self-study, and in-person classes in a physical EF English Center. The platform is being rolled out in EF English Centers across mainland China, using artificial intelligence in English language teaching to make English language learning accessible to even more adults.
As a cross-functional project, EF Smart+ required input and effort from EF staff spread across multiple teams and time zones, which was made more complicated by the ongoing pandemic.
“It was a very unique time to launch a new product,” said Reenie Xu, Program Manager for EF EdTech. “Many companies might stop new product development or technology investments during a pandemic, but not here. At EF, we’re continuing to develop our offerings and lean into what we know. For our staff and customers alike, it’s very motivating to see.”
“The pandemic created some real challenges for collaboration because everything had to happen virtually,” said Li. “But, EF is a place where something like this is likely to succeed because its people are so entrepreneurial and self-sufficient. Above all else, they’re always driven to provide the best and most accessible learning opportunities for our customers.”