(Artificial)Intelligence Unleashed on Education: reasons to be cheerful, part 1

Tomorrow evening I am going to an event being hosted jointly between Pearson and the London Knowledge Lab. It will be the first of three seminars that explore the relationships between Artificial Intelligence and Education.


This first seminar poses several questions and I am discussing each of these over a few blog posts:
“Education is a key area in which AI is increasingly present in tools such as adaptive curricula, online personalized tutors, and teachable agents. So should we be worried? What do we know about how smart technologies work, and what might be realistically possible in the near and distant future? And how can artificial intelligence be best, and most responsibly, leveraged to support teachers in their work to improve outcomes for learners?”
Here are some initial thoughts about each of these:

So should we be worried?

It’s perfectly understandable to be worried about things we don’t really understand and since I suspect that most people don’t understand AI, then that suggests that most people may well feel at least a little apprehensive about AI in the classroom.The truth of the matter is that AI as applied to education is mainly done through building computer models of a particular curriculum, a way of teaching and of the learners who use the AI software. The computer models allow information about learners’ interactions with the AI software to be captured, analysed and used to predict what educational interactions would best suit each particular learner who is using the AI software. A good example of AI based educational software can be found at Carnegie Learning. Their Cognitive Tutors use a ‘model tracing’ approach whereby a subject expert is asked to provide a detailed account of the possible ways in which a student might successfully and unsuccessfully tackle the problems contained within a specified curriculum. The expert’s account is then used as the basis for a computer model of the possible solutions and errors a student might make. As the student progresses through each problem, their path is traced over the model in order to predict what their next steps might be and therefore how the tutor can offer appropriate support. cognitiveTutor_big

These adaptable or personalised software based tutors are not something that we should worry about. They work well for well defined areas of the curriculum, but they do not replace teachers, rather they are complimentary to teachers, because they can free up teacher time to spend on teaching and learning interactions that are not readily replaced by technology.

However there are worries associated with the large-scale uptake of such AI software IF it is seen by managers and administrators as a way of making efficiency savings, rather than a way of maximising the variety of teaching tools that are being used to support learners.

For anyone who wants the research on AI and Education their are several decades of work to be found in the AIED community in their journal and conferences.

OECD Report – Students, Computers and Learning: 3 ways we can do so much better

The 200 page report published yesterday by the OECD is packed with tables and figures that tell a story about the state of 15-year-olds’ educational attainment in maths, reading, science and digital skills in 2012 across the participating countries.

CO7Qte2WUAI_FpkThe negative message from this report has received considerable publicity: countries that have invested heavily in ICT for education do not show improved student achievements in reading, mathematics and science. Less use of the internet is linked to better reading performance and frequent use of technology in school is linked to lower performance. The UK did not participate in this study, but findings being presented to the British Educational Research Association today (Thursday) appear to back it up.

All this sounds very depressing, but it is not the key message we should take away from the report. Instead we should be asking why technology use is not linked to improved attainment and what we should be doing about it.

Andreas Schleichler, OECD director for education and skills, says we must provide teachers with environments that support 21st Century teaching and learning and students with 21st century skills. He states that “Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge” and that’s a very important message to take away.

This link between technology and 21st Century teaching and learning is also reflected in another report published earlier this year by the World Economic Forum (WEF): New Vision for Education, Unlocking the Potential of Technology. This report found that technology was an important factor in successful project-based, experiential and inquiry-based learning.

This finding is also reflected in the OECD data. For example, students reported that their teachers used computers to a greater extent in teaching for real-world problems, particularly related to maths and that these teachers were also more inclined and better prepared for student-oriented teaching practices, such as group work, individualised learning and project work and more likely to use digital resources.

There is strong evidence to support the effectiveness of these learning activities and of technology’s important role. For example WEF found that education technology was key to the successful teaching of 21st-century skills such as communication, creativity, persistence and collaboration. So why are the overall PISA findings still negative about technology and attainment?

Three things we can do

I suggest that at least part of the reason for the negative link between computer use and attainment can be found when we explore what students most commonly do with computers. Unsurprisingly it is not project-based, experiential learning. Students’ use of computers at school is dominated by browsing the internet, with 42% of students doing this once a week or more. The activity performed the least frequently was using simulations (11%). When students did schoolwork at home, once again browsing was the most popular activity. It’s good for students to do a certain amount of unguided browsing, but more importantly they need to be provided with principles and structures to help them perform more strategic searches.

  1. The first thing that we can do, therefore, is to raise the game for students and ensure that their time with technology is spent more productively.

It’s clear that what students do with computers makes a difference to their learning. But what students do is also related to their socio-economic background. In 2012 96% of 15-year-old students in OECD countries reported having a computer at home, so almost everyone has access to technology.

That’s not to say that the hardware divide has been completely eradicated; lower socio-economic groups are likely to have less sophisticated technology. However these older technologies are perfectly capable of supporting learning if the student knows how to use it effectively. The OECD report illustrates that what people do with media is more important than the technologies and connectivity available to them – and also more resistant to change. In their free time disadvantaged students tend to prefer online chat over e-mail, and playing video games rather than reading the news or obtaining practical information.

  1. The second thing that we can do is to focus attention on helping disadvantaged learners to use the technology available to them more effectively.

Finally, let me return to Andreas Schleichler, who states that countries need to “invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change.”

I would go one stage further. Researchers who work with educational technology, and for whom this blog post will hold no surprises, need to be better at communicating what their research can say both to the teachers who use the technology and the developers who build the technology. Unfortunately, (as I have observed before) research is typically conducted in isolation from technology developers. This makes little sense at a time when technology has become consumerised, even for the poorest families, and there is increasing evidence about how to make it effective as a learning tool.

  1. The third thing we can do is to create better communication channels between teachers, technology developers and researchers. Achieving this would be a ‘win win’: Improved learning, better teaching, better research.