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EDTECH: Artificial Intelligence And Big Data Are Transforming Online Learning

The robots are coming for education — tech will help instructors enhance the learning experience

Sun Jul 31 2016

Algorithms suggest our social media mates. Software trades our stocks. But could the arrival of the robots be applied to education? Jozef Misik, managing director of Knowble, a language tech start-up whose products are built on AI, believes so: “Most educational technology products will have an AI or deep learning component in future,” he says.

Already, AI is able to address common learning challenges. Software can track students’ learning processes to help identify problems and, through data analysis, predict performance. Julia Stiglitz, VP of enterprise at online education company Coursera, says: “Data is an amazing resource for teachers, who glean detailed feedback on how learners are processing information.”

Such technology can also provide real-time feedback and ultimately, some experts believe, improve students’ performance.

Oliver Cameron, VP of engineering and product at online learning business Udacity, says: “Rather than waiting for an end of semester survey to uncover an issue or inefficiency, instructors can continuously help students make data-driven improvements year-round.”

As well as helping instructors evaluate, AI can support content delivery. Deep learning systems can read, write and imitate human behaviour. At Colorado State University, for instance, online students are using “intelligent tutoring” technology powered by Cognii, an edtech company, to improve learning and assessment tools.

All of this innovation stems from clever use of information, believes Satya Nitta, director of education and cognitive sciences at IBM: “AI is a tool to make better sense of data,” he says.

By assessing course data with AI — from mouse clicks and time spent on tasks to evaluating how students respond to assessments — universities and digital providers hope to shed light on how learners access information and master material.

Mike Feerick, CEO and founder of online learning company ALISON, says: “There is huge potential for data to improve online learning.”

With data analytics, educators can tailor learning to students’ individual needs. This could enable the makers of Moocs (or massive, open online courses), and blended learning programs, to create unique pathways. Simon Nelson, chief executive of FutureLearn, an online learning company, says data “helps businesses like ours to create the right experiences and target learners with the right things”.

Indeed, the biggest opportunities for AI are in online learning, which has proliferated as low-cost providers such as edX have provided access to top-notch university content, and as smartphone use has grown. One in four students in the US — or 5.8 million — are now banking on distance learning, according to the Online Learning Consortium.

Nancy Moss, the former communications chief of edX, says: “The online environment provides a powerful platform to conduct experiments, and to explore how students learn and how faculty can best teach using a variety of novel tools.” AI is just one of many disruptive forces edging their way into education — virtual and augmented reality and gamification among them.  

Yet while progress is clearly being made to bring AI into the realm of learning science, most of the robotic breakthroughs have been made outside of education and pioneered by companies like Google, Amazon and UPS.

“There are limitations,” admits Hongbin Zhuang, CEO and co-founder of Emotech, a London robotics start-up, such as the uncertainty around how humans learn and concerns around data security and privacy.

Some faculty also reckon their roles could be diminished by technology, or fear that they could even be displaced completely. Amaury de Buchet, affiliate professor at ESCP Europe business school, says: “It’s challenging them to develop their own skills for their future career development.”

Ultimately, however, rather than being a death knell, technology should help instructors enhance the learning experience. The robots are coming for education — the industry must decide whether it’s a blessing or a curse.

“AI in education is not inevitable, but it’s necessary,” says IBM’s Satya.