I have been lucky enough to spend the last couple of weeks teaching at Shandong Agricultural University (SDAU) in Tai’an, China. The RAU have a partnership arrangement with SDAU and our academics teach on a number of courses out there. SDAU is a multi-disciplinary university which covers agriculture, science, engineering, management, economics, humanities, law, medicine and education and has an enrollment of around 30,000 students. It is based in Tai’an, a large city in Shandong province which is known for its mountain – Mount Tai, one of the five most important mountains in China.
While the main focus of my trip wasn’t technology it is hard to visit China without noticing the role tech is playing in their modern lives.
Here are some observations I made while there:
It’s all about the QR code
QR codes are everywhere. From paying for your products (through WeChat and Alipay), sharing your contact details with strangers, to using them to find out public information and what type of trees are in the park (botany is often labelled with a QR code!). As this Technode article explains, QR code scanning has gained prominence because it is a “cheaper alternative to traditional payment systems” and China is now leading the way in building the regulatory framework for QR codes.
Smart phone use is ubiquitous
Phone use has permeated every aspect of people’s lives. They seem to spend even more time on them than we do. It is pretty normal for Chinese (both young and old) to be riding their electric scooters while playing on a gaming app and speaking on the phone at the same time. They have apps for everything and have customised every part of their phone including the digital keyboards (think crazy colours and lots of emojis). As I’ve already mentioned they use their phones to pay for stuff – credit cards just resulted in odd looks.
WeChat is China’s most popular app and is used by absolutely everyone. Some of the main features are messaging, payments, phone management and games. WeChat has been described as a ‘superapp’ as a multitude of mini apps created by external developers can be integrated within the one service.
Learning technology is on the rise
I played Kahoot with my class and they loved it. While the classrooms have a traditional lecture room layout (with fixed seating and teacher at the front) there does seem to be a will to experiment more. With large class sizes technology could make a real difference.
Technical innovation is the norm
Everywhere you look there are technical innovations. For example back up cameras projecting on the rear view mirror are fairly standard, drones for delivering orders, ipads are often used for menus, scanners and barcode readers are owned and used by everyone, from street sellers to hi-tech shops.
China is also aiming to be a global leader in AI and is investing huge amounts of money in research. The biggest Chinese search engine (Baidu) recently poached a former Microsoft executive to lead on AI efforts. The west is watching with interest as China takes the lead in many areas. For a good overview see this recent Wired article: From imitation to innovation: How China became a tech superpower.