The (possible) Future of Artificial Intelligence in Education

A few weeks ago, whilst meeting with a colleague for a coffee, we both received a notification from the Linkedin app on our phones suggesting that we connect with each other. This was not a coincidence; rather an example of the algorithms behind LinkedIn’s networking suggestions powered by Artificial Intelligence.

We now live in a world where Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is being widely spruiked as the next frontier. In fact, just like Virtual Reality, AI has been around for quite some time. So, why so much fuss being made about AI now? AI technology has now advanced to the stage where many commentators are realising it is set to reshape how we live and work. You may read in the newspapers about chatbots and teacherbots, digital assistants, machine and deep learning and wonder what do they mean. As a School, we also ask what this will mean for the future of education.

Chatbots and Teacherbots

A chatbot in use on the Optus website. A bot is a piece of software that is designed to automate repetitive tasks, for example searching and cataloguing Web pages for search engines. Another good example of this technology are the shopping bots which pull prices of an item from different Internet sites to provide the user with a comparison. Chatbots are bots that answer a user’s questions in a way that attempts to mirror a real-life conversation. These chatbots can either be simple rule-based, designed to redirect your enquiry to the relevant department before connecting you with a human operator, or more sophisticated AI-based chatbots which use machine-learning to get smarter, and more efficient, as more interactions take place. The rising popularity of digital assistants, such as Siri, Alexa and Cortana, has been lifting the both demand for chatbots and the complexity of the interactions it is possible to have with them.

What are teacherbots? Just like a chatbot, a teacherbot can be a simple rule-based or smart AI-based. Simple rule-based teacherbots can automate simple teaching tasks such as marking a multiple-choice test, technology that is already available to us as part of our Learning Management System at St Catherine’s. Smarter, AI-based,

Digital Assistants use AI to answer your questions.

‘markerbots’ are being developed and used to automatically mark longer written answers, indeed their use as part of the NAPLAN essay marking process will be trialled this year. Future developments aim to create yet smarter AI-based teacherbots that can serve as a personal tutor, with companies such as Carnegie Learning, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania already offering AI based mathematics tutoring programs.

Teacherbots at Work

There are two well-known instances of teacherbot pilot projects at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and Georgia Tech in the U.S.A.

Botty – University of Edinburgh, UK

The University of Edinburgh’s teacherbot project was launched in April 2015 by Siân Bayne, professor of Digital Education. “Botty,” as this teacherbot was affectionately called, was created to engage on Twitter with students of Edinburgh’s e-Learning and Digital Cultures online course. Botty’s primary role was to act like a teaching assistant, answering simple questions about deadlines and course content. It was also able to answer some complex questions, based on AI that had been developed on stored tweets with Twitter hashtag #edcmooc. In Botty’s case, the students were aware that a teacherbot and not a human being was answering their questions.

Jill Watson – Georgia Tech, USA

Georgia Tech’s teacherbot was developed by Ashok Goel, a professor of Artificial Intelligence at Georgia Tech. Typically, the 300 students at Georgia Tech’s online AI course posted around 10,000 messages in online forums during a semester, many of which were repetitive in nature. Leveraging IBM Watson’s technology platform and a databank of 40,000 questions and answers from past semesters, Ashok developed “Jill Watson.” In this case, students were not told that Jill Watson was a teacherbot, and not a human staff member.

Jill Watson was launched in January 2016. Initially its responses were not very accurate, so responses had to be moderated by the human operators before being posted in the online forums. But by April, it had become sufficiently “intelligent” to answer the questions without any human intervention.

The Future of Artificial Intelligence in Education

The potential of AI to disrupt the education sector is immense. Alongside the development of AI powered tutors and markerbots, there are many other ways in which artificial intelligence may have an influence on the classroom. LoopLearn is a Melbourne based technology start-up that is developing a roll marking and student engagement application which uses facial recognition and machine learning to automatically record student attendance in their classes. Content Technologies, Inc. from California uses AI to create custom textbooks for individual students.

Perhaps the greatest impact of the future development of artificial intelligence technologies on education will not be because of the use of AI in the classroom, but as a result of its use in the world of work. Machine-learning and AI will have a great impact on a number of professions and careers. Many jobs which currently require employees to sift through great quantities of data, will be replaced by AI. A McKinsey’s report in January 2017 went as far to suggest that up to half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, or 20 years earlier in more extreme scenarios.

It is for this uncertain world of work that we at St Catherine’s strive to prepare our students, and to do so we embrace innovative uses of technology, teaching them to be confident, competent and flexible users of the new technologies available to them and to be intellectually equipped for the technological changes ahead.

Mr Alex Borlenghi

Head of Digital Learning and Practice

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