Artificial Intelligence in Education

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Rarely a day goes by that does not bring some news about Artificial Intelligence (AI). Microsoft’s acquisition of Nuance this week is a case in point. From the investment opportunities it presents to the societal implications it portends, few of us make it through a day without reading about, or interacting with, AI in at least one of its protean uses. Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and the auto-generated text or grammatical suggestions in your word processor all derive to some degree from this technology. While it can seem that this is an entirely new field for exploration as to how it might impact education, the research into those possibilities and limitations has been going on for decades.

Initially, research on Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS) grew out of frustration with the limitations of computer-based training (CBT) and computer-aided instruction (CAI). Even a cursory glance at the computer science research literature of the 1990s provides numerous examples of writers bemoaning how we achieved little progress with “computers in education” over the previous two decades. The intervening years between now and when that research was published have provided multiple avenues for developing the technology far beyond education. Given that progress, it is inevitable that opportunities for introducing AI into various aspects of teaching and learning will only increase going forward.

Like many things in the realm of educational technology, it may seem that the pandemic served to accelerate the pace of the incredible changes in AI. Yet, the past year’s challenges did little to impact the momentum AI had gained over the previous decade. As described in the 2021 AI Index, “The last decade was a pivotal one for the AI industry, and 2020 saw AI substantially increase its impact on the world despite the chaos brought about by the COVID pandemic: Technologists made significant strides in massive language and generative models; the United States witnessed its first drop in AI hiring ever – pointing to a maturation of the industry – while hiring around the world increased; more dollars flowed to government use of AI than ever before, while colleges and universities offered students double the AI courses from a few years ago.”

Another helpful report for design insights comes from the Center for Integrative Research in Computing and Learning Sciences (CIRCLS). The report stems from a panel consisting of “22 experts in AI and learning”. The authors describe what they term “new design concepts for using AI in learning” along the lines of “how AI could support learning in terms of orchestrating complex learning activities with multiple people and resources, augmenting human abilities in learning contexts, expanding naturalistic interactions among learners and with artificial agents, broadening the competencies that can be assessed, and revealing learning connections that are not easily visible.” In their view, “These approaches go beyond familiar design concepts for individualized, personalized, or adaptive learning.” 

Finally, an interview with the report authors provides additional insights into what they see as the key takeaways from the panel’s work. “Start from what is good teaching and learning” instead of “what AI can do for me.” Likewise, “as more money pours into the AI field, companies must ensure that any tools they develop for schools are human-centered.” This advice echoes what you will often hear from our office regarding keeping “teaching first, technology second.”

Be sure to check out the reports to keep up with the exciting developments in AI. Feel free to reach out to us with any questions.