As universities closed last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of teachers and millions of students were forced into an unplanned experiment in online learning for which few were prepared.
As the world prepared for the start of the new academic year, school administrators and elected officials struggled to create workable plans to protect the health and safety of students and teachers and reopen schools amid the ongoing pandemic. Given the continued disruption, it’s time for us to talk about how to improve online education.
There’s a lot to be excited about. Researchers are beginning to understand how the brain learns and artificial intelligence (AI) is making it possible to apply that knowledge to systems that make it easier and more enjoyable for students to study. Already, AI systems are optimising some online learning and are pointing to a future which is radically different from the education paradigms of the past.
Parents and teachers have known for centuries that the best education is delivered one-on-one by an experienced educator that creates an equilibrium between challenge and student support. But that is expensive, labour intensive and cannot scale. AI is changing that as a tool that can benefit both teachers and students.
Algorithms can now uncover patterns about how students perform and algorithms can help teachers optimise their strategies accordingly. ‘AI tutors’, software systems that students interact with online, can give every student greater access to the individualised attention they need.
They can set goals to keep students engaged and switch strategies when they sense students are getting frustrated or bored. Research evidence shows that these systems raise student performance well beyond the level of conventional classes and even beyond the level achieved with human tutors.
These systems don’t replace teachers, nor should they, but they can take over much of the drudge work of teaching – grading, for example, and give teachers more time to teach. They can collect meaningful data about each student’s performance to help teachers personalise their instruction. They are, in effect, a tireless and attentive teachers’ aide, focusing with eternal patience on the progress and needs of each student.
Improved AI algorithms for education
Public and private universities across the globe are now considering this new AI-enabled approach. But there is even more hope on the horizon.
Researchers from around the world are joining in an AIEd Global Challenge, sponsored by a coalition of universities, non-profit organisations and education companies. The challenge invites leading global AI talent to compete on Google’s Kaggle competition platform to design improved AI algorithms for education.
Such challenges have been used in the past to focus the world’s best academic minds on difficult problems and are responsible for some of the most significant advances in artificial intelligence. The ImageNet Large Scale Visual Recognition Challenge led to breakthroughs in computer vision, for example, and the DARPA Grand Challenge kicked off the development of self-driving cars.
The inaugural Riiid AIEd Challenge, launched on 5 October, calls for researchers to design an algorithm that can improve the ability of AI to accurately predict student performance on multiple-choice questions. Researchers will use EdNet, the largest public AI-education dataset in the world.
The winners will compete for a share of a US$100,000 prize pool and the competition will continue in the future with periodic challenges on new topics to continue to refine the use of AI in education.
Education was in crisis before COVID-19 and fixing it was seen as a gargantuan task hindered by inertia and lack of resources. As difficult as the past six months have been for parents and students, the disruption caused by the pandemic presents us with an historic opportunity to try new technologies that would otherwise face stiff resistance from entrenched interests.
It is clear that our education system must be prepared for a future that embraces technology to improve learning, whether that learning happens in person, online or in flexible hybrid environments.
AI and the internet hold the promise of democratising quality education and untethering access to personalised instruction from a student’s zip code. By focusing the best AI minds in the world on the improvement of AI-enabled education, we can bring researchers and teachers together to design a new paradigm for education in the post-COVID era.