How AI is making education smarter

“Human plus machine isn’t the future, it’s the present,” Garry Kasparov said in a recent TED talk.

Imagine a classroom in a rural Mexican town where teachers from across the globe teach online; or a classroom where students travel virtually around the world and learn about different cultures using virtual and augmented reality. It’s all happening. And the emerging technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) are making it possible.

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The concept of the 4IR ties together a plethora of cutting-edge technologies — artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing, machine learning, the internet of things, cloud computing, and big data — into a vision of an automated and smart future. These technologies can be both liberating and disruptive. The promise of the 4IR suggests that disruptiveness does not have to mean divisiveness. Open data, big data, and smart services working hand in hand with the right policies can go a long way to counterbalancing the disruption caused by emerging technologies, AI in particular.

The future of work is starting to look very different, as AI makes many manual, repetitive jobs obsolete. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, robots could replace 800 million jobs by 2030. By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. These children should be taught HOW TO THINK, and “soft skills” like independent thinking, curiosity, values, and team-work.

Despite all these technological advances, today’s classrooms have not changed much: teachers stand in front, giving instructions and sharing notes on a modern-day version of the old blackboard — say, an overhead projector or a shared computer display. Students sit at their desks in the classroom or watch via online video-conferencing software. Even though emerging technologies are influencing modern societies in ways unimaginable, education and training systems, have remained mostly static and underinvested in for decades, and are mainly inadequate for the new 4IR reality. Even today, memorization can be rewarded more than inquisitiveness and experimentation.

Societies, and developing countries, in particular, must rethink the way human capital is developed and deployed. This requires breaking down silos between education systems and labor markets, breaking down cultural silos between different disciplines, innovative approaches to regulation, new forms of public-private partnerships, and new models of governance.

Thanks to advances in AI and machine learning, the education sector is starting to change slowly, but steadily. AI could act as an extra pair of hands in the classroom. AI could do even more — it could make teachers better by giving them greater insight into their students’ needs. AI algorithms can assist teachers by collecting, analyzing, and correlating every interaction that takes place in physical and virtual classrooms, and thus personalize the learning experience. No more one-size-fits-all course lectures. Online tutoring is another exciting development. One example is Brainly, a social media platform that enables millions of students to connect and solve homework and assignments. Other platforms such as Freckle, Carnegie Learning, and Thinkster are working on intelligent tutoring systems (ITS) that are able to mimic the benefits of one-on-one tutoring. Another fascinating example is zSpace that has built an augmented reality tablet that uses a stylus and glasses to allow students to have interactive learning experiences. Technology like this not only makes education more immersive but also can provide more accurate models for students in professional fields like medicine and architecture.

There are now a number of AI-powered platforms that create rich digital profiles of each student by collecting live information from the user’s interaction with course material. In addition to keeping records of grades and scores, Zoomi tracks micro-interactions such as viewing specific slides or pages on PDF documents, replaying a specific part of a video, or posting a question or answer on a discussion forum. The data is then used to build a model that can give real-time insights into a student’s understanding and engagement with specific topics. Data models also help in finding common patterns among multiple students and performing predictive analytics, such as forecasting how students will perform in the future.

More advanced uses of AI can involve the employment of complicated computer-vision algorithms to analyze facial expressions, such as boredom and distractedness, and link those to the other data gathered on students in order to create a more complete picture of a student’s learner model.

It should not be forgotten that while we’ve seen impressive efforts in the application of AI in education, the results are pale in comparison to other domains where AI algorithms are causing major disruptions.

The reason for this is that education and learning are fundamentally social experiences that are extremely hard — if not impossible — to automate. It is near to impossible that teaching would become automated completely. AI can’t replace teachers because, for the time being, it lacks self-awareness and empathy.

Nevertheless, AI combined with big data can enable tracking progress along multiple dimensions, such as subjects, skills, and characteristics. This, on the other hand, will make teachers more productive and efficient. AI can also facilitate collaborative learning by comparing student learner models and suggesting groupings in which participants are at a similar cognitive level or have complementary skills. AI can also take part in learner groups as a member and help sway discussions in the right direction by providing content, posing questions and providing alternative viewpoints.

The emergence and adoption of AI across the teaching and learning process will eventually revolutionize education. According to a Stanford University Report, in the next fifteen years, it is likely that human teachers will be assisted by AI technologies that will result in better human interaction both in the classroom and in the home.

The classroom of the future might not change significantly, however, thanks to more capable teachers assisted by AI algorithms and machine learning, children across the globe will have access to good quality education and will be able to learn at a much faster pace.

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