Artificial intelligence might evoke images of the renegade computer Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey but the technology is now quietly powering many areas of our lives.
Many sectors, most notably online search but also logistics, e-commerce and banking have embraced AI, at least in part. But there’s currently little focus on the technology’s practical potential in the world of education.
There may on the face of it be some distrust of this advanced technology in a world that runs on human relationships, even though learning tech is playing an increasingly prominent role in learners’ lives. But AI can play a very helpful, supporting role in teaching and learning.
Before I get into the reasons why AI should play a bigger role in the education world, we should separate fact from fiction. AI programmes aren’t about to develop sentience, despite the recent claims of a Google engineer, let alone decide to act against our interests. AI is code, a set of algorithms constructed in a way that makes it possible for it to, in a sense, ‘learn’ from experience, derive insights from that information and then make rational, informed decisions. In our case that involves presenting our AI algorithms with a wealth of data – drawn from more than 2 million hours of online tuition that’s taken place on our platform since 2016 – that they can then use to come to those informed decisions.
If AI algorithms have been exposed to enough data points then they can develop a finely tuned knowledge of the difference between academic subject areas and the topics and subtopics within each subject
This mass of information – which includes transcribed recordings of the spoken word, resources shared, and notes and annotations made on our platform’s whiteboard – consists of tens of millions of data points that are then ‘learned’ by our algorithms. The insights derived from this information can be used to support teaching and learning in various ways.
For example, the technology can provide educators with information about their online teaching and tutoring that can then be used to refine and reshape future sessions with their students. By combining student feedback and assessments with AI insights on the make-up of lessons or tuition sessions, such as the amount of time they devote to particular topics and the amount of time they speak relative to their students, they can tweak their approach for future lessons.
As well as enabling more focused teaching, AI can also help students get more value from their online tuition or teaching. If AI algorithms have been exposed to enough data points then they can develop a finely tuned knowledge of the difference between academic subject areas and the topics and subtopics within each subject. Insights like this now make it possible for us to deliver functionality that enables students to not only build their own personal revision library but to also have it automatically tagged and categorised. When the student is revisiting this resource to revise their understanding of a particular topic, this AI technology can suggest related topics and concepts, giving students the means to easily connect learning concepts without a teacher or tutor being there to guide them.
AI’s ability to understand images is a nascent but rapidly evolving technology. The advances being made in this area have big implications for teaching and learning. AI can help here by learning to recognise different types of images and accurately file them away so when it comes to the tutor or teacher preparing a lesson they will be able to access those resources far more efficiently. The algorithms will do their work under the bonnet and recommend the diagram or resource they need.
Looking ahead, we are moving towards a situation where AI will be able to produce new, original resources based on other similar resources that it has already ‘learned’. It’s a development that could potentially save educators many hours of preparation time.
We’re seeing the beginnings of the practical application of AI technology in teaching and learning and I believe that it will eventually have a profoundly positive impact as educators begin to uncover and understand the technology’s true potential. Hal 9000 and its malign intent can stay firmly in the realm of sci-fi – we can make AI work in reality for the benefit of students, teachers and tutors.
Will Chambers is co-founder of Bramble Technologies.