World's richest teaching prize on a mission to create ‘a better world through education’

28th December 2016 at 16:17
Yidan prize, teaching, students, school
Tech billionaire Charles Chen Yidan believes artificial intelligence will hand over almost almost $8m next year to people transforming education - find out what he's looking for

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Charles Chen Yidan launched the Yidan Prize this year, which will award two prizes each worth HK$30 million (about $3.9 million) for the best education research and development projects from around the globe. 

Following the launch in May, Mr Chen (pictured, centre) has been travelling the world to find nominations for the inaugural prize, which will be awarded next September.

Speaking to TES, he said he hoped the prize would shine a “spotlight” on two laureates each year who would be able to “tell the world what they think the best [education] research and practice is”.

“If you ask me to describe the Yidan Prize, it’s a very simple mission: create a better world through education,” he said.

Mr Chen made his fortune in the tech industry, co-founding the internet giant Tencent, a website and social media company which provides services such as WeChat – the Chinese version of WhatsApp which has more than 700 million users.

So when he talks about how rapid technological innovation will take root in classrooms, he’s worth listening to.

The technology revolution

Mr Chen thinks the coming years will see further expansion of massive open online courses (MOOCs), with previously offline teaching resources being shared online. 

“This could be very helpful for places where they don’t have good quality teacher resources – to enjoy the benefit of education at a low-cost manner,” he said.

He thinks this will be accompanied by artificial intelligence and virtual reality, so students can “have a more direct understanding and feeling of the teaching content”. 

Big data could be used “to analyse students’ learning and school management so that these can be improved”, and technology will allow delivery of a “personalised education” tailored to pupils’ unique circumstances, he said.

The prize could go to a tech idea, but Mr Chen said it could also recognise more fundamental reflections on the nature of education.

“What’s the best way to evaluate education? Is it simply by exams – are we having too many exams? What’s the right education we should have for our children, and is the best way to teach by different subjects or should we actually break down those subjects?”

He said the prize would not be prescriptive, and winners would be determined by independent judges using four criteria on whether their projects are “future-oriented”, “innovative”, “transformative” and “sustainable”.

Key differences between East and West

Mr Chen’s comments follow the latest Programme for International Student Assessment results, with East Asian countries once again performing strongly. 

Asked what explains this success, he pointed to “different models and approaches of teaching” in Asia and the West. 

Teaching in China focuses on establishing “a set of methodologies or approaches” in “fundamental subjects” like math at an early age, whereas Western approaches emphasise more “comprehensive methods, stressing creativity, thinking and reading”. 

“Both models have their pros and cons and they are particular to their own context and cultural heritage, you can’t say which is better or worse,” he said.

Mr Chen has been an advocate of greater autonomy for Chinese schools – last year he invested in a Chinese college to turn it into a private non-profit university outside of the public system.

In terms of the Chinese education system, he said that while the scaling up of education access in the past 30 years had been “tremendous”, the focus was now switching from availability to quality.

“With society progressing even further, people are raising higher demands for higher quality education,” he said. 

“Students and parents know the outside world much better now, so they’re asking questions like, ‘What is good education…is there a way that we could combine the Chinese and international styles of education?”

For more details on the Yidan Prize, click here.

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