Photo/IllutrationA new first-year senior high school student reads aloud a sentence in English shown on the monitor of an artificial intelligence-based system in Musashino, Tokyo. (Aki Sato)

The planned reform of university entrance exams has opened up new opportunities for companies to win over new young customers, with artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies being exploited to get ahead of the pack.

While the number of students is expected to decline with the dwindling birthrate, various businesses are actively working to take advantage of the change, with competition to lure students expected to heat up.

Under the reform plan, speaking and writing tests will be added to the existing college English exams in fiscal 2020, so companies not only in the education industry but also other fields have introduced AI and other latest technologies to respond to the shift.

One day recently at a cram school in Musashino, western Tokyo, a female student who will enter high school in April was reading aloud sentences in English shown on a computer monitor in a one-person training booth.

When she finished reading all the messages, the word “children” turned red, indicating the student had failed to pronounce it correctly.

The Toshin Kichijoji cram school uses an AI-based English learning app that can check students’ pronunciation of difficult-to-differentiate letters for Japanese, such as "r" and "l" and "b" and "v," and display words pronounced incorrectly in red on the monitor.

The system will be fully introduced for new first-year senior high school students, as they will be the first to take the new exams.

The Kawaijuku Educational Institution has also adopted an English training app that allows students to improve their speaking and listening abilities on tablet computers by themselves through reading aloud English sentences and listening to conversations in the language.

The institute has also set up a special small class in which children hold debates and presentations in English.

Naruo Fukunaga, head of Kawaijuku’s entrance test education department, said he expects those new services will “lead to our boosted share in the market and increased per-customer spending.”

Benesse Holdings Inc., which was once tarnished by the scandal over leaks of its customers’ personal data, is attempting to capitalize on the planned reform to improve its sales.

While Benesse’s core product is the Shinken Zemi correspondence course, it will start providing a 15-minute monthly online English conversation program for free for new first-year senior high school students attending the course, starting in April.

The new service will enable learners to talk with native English speakers in real time through their tablets and other electronic devices.

NEW COMPANIES EMERGING

Not only existing firms in the education industry, but new businesses are working hard to capitalize on the upcoming change in the entrance exam system.

Recruit Marketing Partners Co. is considering adding a new English learning course to its Study Sapuri smartphone app, which features 40,000 lesson videos in five subjects, to better respond to the adjustment.

While Recruit Marketing Partners is famous for its Zexy bridal magazine, the company began offering the education service in March 2013.

The program initially targeted those who do not attend cram schools, but it has been widely accepted by children enrolling in those schools as well, as users of the service can watch unlimited videos for a monthly fee of about 980 yen ($9.21), plus tax.

“(Our app) will prove helpful for the new English tests after the entrance exam reform,” said a Recruit Marketing Partners official. “We want new first-year senior high school students to use our service.”

While an online English conversation training system of Tokyo-based start-up company Study Lab Inc. is designed to cater to cram schools and others, the firm has stopped accepting new users.

That is because the system, marketed in late 2015, has proved so popular with its excellent stability and user-friendliness that the number of students using the service has risen 40-fold to 5,500 since its release, making it difficult for Study Lab to accept new customers.

Meanwhile, the Tokyo metropolitan government plans to open the Tokyo Global Gateway facility in the capital’s Koto Ward in September, where children of elementary school age to senior high school age can spend a whole or half day studying and interacting only in English.

The facility will be introduced jointly with education-related firm Gakken Holdings Co. and other parties, and allow students to experience various situations and circumstances in daily life commonly found in English-speaking regions.