What the emerging technology will and will not do for teachers and students.
GUEST COLUMN | by Jon Roepke
Artificial Intelligence is all around us. From digital assistants like Siri and Alexa to algorithms that suggest what music to listen to on Spotify, AI in its many forms is now part of our everyday lives. And while soon we may all ride around in self-driving cars, the area where AI will most profoundly affect our lives is in education. As with virtual reality, artificial intelligence is still in its early days as an education tool, with minimal adoption in the classroom. But even more so than VR, artificial intelligence could fundamentally change the process of how we learn. Some of the most exciting in-class applications are intelligent tutor systems as well as AI teaching assistants, while outside the classroom AI will enhance the effectiveness of both self-guided as well as MOOC learning platforms (Massive Open Online Course).
Smart AI in education can leverage a good teacher’s abilities and free them to work with students on the most high-value skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity.
In our current system, K-12 teachers don’t have the capacity to cater to every student’s specific needs. What if each student had a personal tutor that could closely monitor their progress, understand how they learn, and determine where they need more help? It is well documented that one-on-one instruction is the most effective form of education. AI-powered tutors, called Intelligent Tutor Systems, have the potential to provide this kind of customized, personal instruction at scale. Pioneering companies such as Thinkster Math, Carnegie Learning and Front Row are showing promise in this arena. Such intelligent tutors will be able to track a student’s performance, learn what kind of concepts the student finds difficult as well as discover which learning methods and tactics work best for them. AI tutors won’t take the place of the teacher, but will help teachers be more intimately aware of each student’s learning process and be better equipped to help them succeed. Intelligent tutors can also increase students’ meta-cognition, helping with self-awareness and self-regulation.
On the other side of the equation, AI-powered teaching assistants can take over the burden of time consuming tasks like grading and record keeping. This can enable teachers to focus on the more creative and value-added aspects of their work. In the 2015 paper Intelligence Unleashed by education company Pearson, the authors suggest that another area where AI can help teachers is in collaborative learning. Collaborative learning modules, such as a group presentation on a history subject or a team science project, have powerful benefits. Students learn to listen to each other, engage in constructive discussion and share knowledge. AI assistants can help take the place of the teacher in moderating group activities and/or participating in the discussions. This can help the teacher administer more collaborative learning projects than they could support by themselves.
AI can also help fulfill the promise of online learning. Whether self-directed platforms like Khan Academy or MOOCs like EdX and Coursera, these platforms have hundreds of thousands of users and generate millions of pieces of data. These platforms are now using AI engines to sift through the data to find patterns that help identify which lessons are effective and which ones need improvement. Using AI to optimize instruction can improve student engagement, which will increase course completion rates. At the same time, online AI tutors can also be used to fill in students’ gaps of understanding and help them overcome obstacles. Given the massive scale of these online courses, an AI tutor’s ability to monitor performance and provide high-frequency feedback can provide an interactive learning experience that is impossible for the teacher to provide.
With such powerful technology already available, why have schools and universities been so slow to adopt AI in the classroom? One obvious reason is lack of funds. Another is that there is not yet enough concrete evidence that AI technologies help students achieve learning objectives. Finally, there is the misguided concern among teachers that, like workers whose jobs are being taken by robots, they will be rendered obsolete by AI tutors. On the contrary, smart AI in education can leverage a good teacher’s abilities and free them to work with students on the most high-value skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity.
One likely impact of AI-assisted learning is that the line between traditional classroom education and online/self directed learning will likely become blurred. AI tutors will help students optimize among the multitude of resources available, and will enable them to have greater ownership of their education process. Perhaps the ultimate effect of the personal AI tutor is that it could usher in a new mentality of continuous, self-directed learning in which we all remain students throughout our lives whether we are in a classroom or not.
Jon Roepke is the director of product management for Belkin International, Inc. He leads the creation and fulfillment of new business ventures, and helps define and develop technology solutions, including mobile apps and hardware for next-gen learning environments in partnership with Apple, Samsung, Google and other core technology leaders. Follow @Belkin