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China: Found in translation

Innovative program teaches English to Chinese students through online cartoons.

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.”