China: Found in translation

Chinese schoolchildren perform morning exercises at their school in Shanghai October 14, 2009. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

SHANGHAI, China — In 1997, at age 25, Pan Pengkai left his native Hangzhou and arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts to begin his PhD in interactive cinema at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had been studying English for the last decade in school, but as Pan began classes, he grew increasingly frustrated.

“You’d go listen to a lecture for two hours, and you couldn’t understand a thing except the last sentence,” Pan said, chuckling. “‘Do you have any questions?’”

Now chief executive of the Shanghai-based English-learning software maker Saybot, Inc., Pan commands a workforce of 100 engineers, product developers and salespeople who create interactive learning software that’s used by more than 180 million students in China.

Earlier this year, the company also launched a new web-based English-learning environment for kids called Alo7 in China, the country home to the most internet users in the world.

“Learning is a very interesting thing in the 21st century,” said Pan. ““Chinese kids have fewer choices in school than American kids, so going on the Internet is heaven for them. But I don’t want them to kill dragons. That doesn’t help their intelligence. I want them to love to learn.”

Pan comes from a family of teachers, and both of his parents are professors. He studied industrial design at Zhejiang University and was one of the first people in China to use the internet while creating 3D animation for television commercials. Pan partly credits having access to the internet in 1995 with getting into MIT: “I was able to scope out the programs and professors at every school, and write a more detailed application.”

One of six students accepted to MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte’s interdisciplinary program in interactive media, Pan created a series of innovative projects including a sharing platform similar to YouTube (“The timing was too early”) and an interactive film for cell phones and PDAs that used location censors that tracked the user’s location (“Again, too early”). By graduation in 2003, Pan had an attractive offer from Google in hand.

But he had a different idea.

Pan wanted to return to China and launch a language software company. “Spoken English is the biggest problem in China, so there must be something wrong with the way Chinese students learn English,” Pan said. Pan observed that a simple machine that uses traditional cassettes, called the “repeat machine," was selling 200 million units a year at $20 to $30 each. He had used the machine as a child.

Pan’s first idea was to develop a small speech robot device, using speech-recognition software and similar participatory design principles as interactive cinema. Negroponte, who is founder and current chairman of the One Laptop per Child non-profit organization, contributed seed money.

But after working on the robot for six months, Pan found that the idea wouldn’t fly. “Hardware sales and distribution in China is very tough. There’s lots of money spent on marketing, and over-inflating product features,” Pan said. “In this kind of market, it’s hard to compete.”

So he decided to take his product online. By 2006, Saybot rolled out its software to English training academies, public schools, and other consumers. Targeted at university students preparing for exams, the software costs students RMB 100 to RMB 300 ($15 to $44) per year.

In January, the company rolled out Alo7, a virtual cartoon world online for kids age 6 to 16 designed to match classroom textbooks. The theme is traveling the world with pets discovering different cultures and languages. Access to the site costs RMB 1 a day ($0.15 a day).

Pan believes that innovation comes from different points of view. “Education products are hard to make, but learning is individualized,” said Pan. “Different people find aspects engaging and effective. We’re continuously talking with customers, schools, and rolling out new releases every week.”

According to Pan, China faces unique challenges because its educational system has been overly commercialized. “China fell behind because it stopped learning. Everyone wants to get into a good school, not emphasize kids’ individuality.”

“Deng Xiaoping had a clear vision in the early 1980s: China needs to modernize, face the future and the world. But the educational vision got lost,” said Pan. “Our leaders should set an agenda now.”