The future of learning is already here
Will robots be the teachers of the future? The general consensus is that technology will never fully replace teachers in the classroom. However, with the rapid advancements being made in artificial intelligence (AI) and the groundbreaking research being conducted in this area, learning for both children and adults is set to undergo nothing short of a revolution.
There is no escaping it: AI is everywhere these days. It is powering online shopping assistants, machine translating, and Netflix’s personalised viewing recommendations, to name just a few. As this technology evolves, so does its scope for application, and it is quickly spreading to every imaginable industry. Education is no exception. AI is already becoming a reality in classrooms around the world, and with innovative products being developed and launched in this area, there is little doubt it will fundamentally change the way we learn.
The business of education
Education is a booming business. It is also a sector that is notoriously understaffed and lacking in resources. Amy Ogan, Thomas and Lydia Moran Assistant Professor of Learning Science at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, has been working in AI in education for 15 years and believes we are on the verge of a paradigm shift. “With the widespread access to technology and the fact there are now enough companies able to market these systems, we’re really seeing a convergence of market readiness and the technological availability in schools,” she says.
Scientists began to explore AI applications in education more than 30 years ago. Some of the earliest research was conducted to address a problem that educators have long been facing: how to adjust learning to the differing needs of students. Traditionally, teaching has been directed at the middle learners in a class, which often leads to slower students being left behind and accelerated students being underchallenged. “There was a perceived need to find a way to tailor instruction in a manner that isn’t always possible when you have one teacher standing in front of 30 students,” says Ogan.
AI can help with this dilemma by identifying knowledge gaps and patterns in the way an individual student learns. How does it work? Every time a learner uses a device to engage with the activity in question, the AI picks up on their responses, determines where they might need additional instruction, and provides appropriate content at what it identifies as the ideal pace. In other words, it personalises learning with the aim of maximising the individual’s potential.
This type of individualised learning is already a reality in some classrooms, but to date it has been used primarily for rule-based subjects such as mathematics that are easier for the technology to harness. However, as AI technology improves, scientists are exploring how it can be applied to other subject areas where until recently this had not been possible. Ogan has, for example, used AI in systems that help university undergrads learn about French culture and elementary students learn literacy, among others.
The advancements being made with AI in an educational context go beyond just helping students – they can also be used to benefit teachers. Current real-world applications in this area are mostly focused on reducing the administrative burden on teachers arising from time-consuming tasks such as grading. Companies like GradeScope sell products that use AI and machine learning to grade the work submitted by students, even handwritten work, leaving educators with more time to dedicate to teaching.
In a more futuristic application, AI might also be able to help educators improve and tailor their teaching methods with the help of sensors. “One of the things I’m really excited about is moving entirely off the screen with AI,” says Ogan. She is working on a project that uses such sensors to collect data about what is going on in the classroom. The sensors capture information on body language such as facial expressions and posture, but also things like how many hands go up to answer a question. This can be used to provide actionable feedback to teachers, for example that they need to move around more to keep attention levels up, or that the students in the back row should be more actively involved.
“Those might seem like really simple things, but because teachers have to focus on so many factors when they are in the classroom, it can sometimes be difficult to pay attention to them all,” says Ogan.
From the classroom to the boardroom
Learning is, of course, a lifelong process, and much of it takes place outside the formal schooling context. AI is being applied across this educational spectrum – from massive open online courses to learning in a company environment. Major corporations in particular are investing large sums in this technology to optimise and individualise training and development for their employees.
Jeanne Meister is the owner of Future Workplace, an HR advisory and research firm, and the author of several books about the expansion of corporate universities and the future of work. “AI in corporate learning is not the future, it’s already here, it is happening and it’s a real opportunity,” she says. Meister points to General Electric as an example: GE employees have an app that enables them to provide feedback to other employees, say, about a presentation that someone has given to senior management. Based on the content of the feedback, the AI technology makes recommendations, be it online courses, books, or video learning, that can help the employee improve in that specific area.
Companies such as Butterfly AI are offering corporate products that use a similar approach to specifically target the management coaching segment – where until recently anything but a human coach was unthinkable. That is no longer the case with these new technologies. They regularly solicit employee feedback, and then pull and provide relevant information that supports managers in taking measures to address areas that have been identified as needing improvement.
The list of real-world examples of powering learning through AI technology is long – yet these are still early days. Increasing access to digital devices for users of all ages, strong demand for individualised learning, and the pioneering research being done in the field mean that the way we learn in 20 or 30 years will look very different from today. And as the AI technology applied in the education sector gets smarter, it will help the people using it to do the same.