April 2018 Published in Forbes
What’s the first image that comes into your head when you hear the term ‘artificial intelligence’? Do you picture a futuristic world full of flying cars and drones? What about cyborgs, or perhaps killer robots?
Hollywood has certainly had an influential role in shaping what most people consider artificial intelligence (or AI) to be. And while many of portrayals are purely fictional, it’s undeniable that AI is already having a very profound impact in our daily lives, but perhaps in ways people don’t realise.
From email filters that automatically categorise incoming mail, to online chatbots that can respond to customer enquiries, AI is being creatively applied to carry out a range of basic functions. Organisations across the public, private and even not-for-profit sectors are taking advantage of AI technologies like machine learning, deep learning, blockchain and augmented reality, to improve the way they operate, or enhance their products and services.
Perhaps most excitingly, we’re only just scratching the surface in terms of how AI can be effectively used. This is particularly true in education, and specifically, how AI is set to transform the way people – be it children, university students, working professionals or retirees – are able to learn new things.
Learning in the classroom
Let’s move away from AI for a moment – picture a classroom of 30 primary school students. It’s a mixed class, full of students from all types of backgrounds and cognitive abilities. Now picture a teacher standing in front of the class giving a lesson in basic arithmetic. The challenge for this teacher is delivering a lesson that caters to the 30 different students. Some students will engage better with visual stimulus; some will respond to group activities. Yet given the nature of classroom teaching, in this scenario the educator has to decide what teaching method will work best for the greatest number of students.
Most people who work in the education sector would see the above scenario as an inevitable reality of teaching in a classroom. Schools typically have limited resources to draw upon – in fact, according to a survey by the National Education Union, 55% of teachers in the UK saw their class sizes increase between April 2017 and April 2018. Moreover, half of the education professionals surveyed reported teaching posts being cut.
With the number of students in the classroom rising, the idea of teachers delivering tailored lessons that cater to the learning needs of each individual pupil seems farfetched. Yet in reality, we are much closer than people might think, thanks to some of the exciting innovations that are currently unfolding in the AI industry.
Changing the way we learn through AI
For someone who doesn’t have an in-depth understanding of technology, AI may seem like an alien concept. Yet the basic crux of the term is simple – namely, the ability of a computer or machine to think, learn and imitate intelligent human behaviour.
Already, we are seeing AI and machine learning being creatively applied to help people learn. Companies are currently creating what is known as intelligence instruction design on digital platforms. By providing a student with a list of questions and exercises, the technology is able to understand through machine learning what method of teaching is generating the best response. It can then deliver tailored lessons catered to each individual student. There’s even talk of AI devices being able to read facial expressions to determine whether the student (who could be nine years old or 90) is reacting positively or negatively to different learning methods.
Teachers also stand to benefit from AI innovation. Take marking and grading papers as an example. At the moment, computers are able to mark multiple choice tests. However, algorithms are now being used to assess complex, open-ended written responses that test a student’s real understanding of the subject matter. In doing so, it gives teachers more time to dedicate to their students.
The future of AI in learning
When it comes to AI in learning, we are only just scratching the surface. There will still be a natural period of trial and error, but we shouldn’t think that tailored learning through AI is something that we won’t see for decades.
Companies around the world are exploring the potential of AI to improve the way people are able to learn, be it a student in the classroom or an adult hoping to learn an instrument in their spare time. While flying cars and cyborgs are not something we should envisage happening anytime soon, existing AI technology could drastically transform the way humans are able to learn.
This article originally appeared in Education Technology.