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AI Helping to Transform Education in Pandemic Era

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education has been profound, with new ways of thinking about how best to teach students reverberating in institutions of higher learning, K-12 classrooms and in the business community.

The role of AI is central to the discussion on every level. For the K-12 classroom, teachers are thinking about how to use AI as a teaching tool. For example, Deb Norton of the Oshkosh Area school district in Wisconsin, was asked several years ago by the International Society for Technology in Education to lead a course on the uses of AI in K-12 classrooms, according to a recent account in Education Week.

The course includes sections on the definition of artificial intelligence, machine learning, voice recognition, chatbots and the role of data in AI systems. To teach about machine learning, one teacher tied it to yoga, and how the student could do a yoga pose that could be recognized via machine learning, and then the machine could give them feedback on their yoga poses.

Another teacher working with elementary students used the coding site Scratch to create interactive characters and programs such as for creating a skill in Amazon’s Alexis, which are like apps on a smart phone except activated with voice.

Deb Norton, teacher, Oshkosh Area school district, Wisconsin

Asked if she foresees increasing interest in AI as a result of increased remote learning during the pandemic, Norton stated, “AI could become a really big part of virtual learning and at-home learning, but I just don’t think we’re quite there yet. For many of our educators, they’re just dipping their feet into how this would work.”

Protecting privacy is an issue. Many schools will not allow schools to open up Alexa and Google Home out of concern for personal privacy. One workaround could be a school-only network to serve as a test bed.

She does see the potential for AI to help with learning management applications “from a teacher-educator point of view, to be able to engage and monitor and track the types of lessons and strategies that can be delivered in the most effective way in the classroom.”

Investor Sees Disruption Ahead in Higher Education

From an investment point of view, AI in education in the new era represents opportunity. Some see disruption looming in the higher education university system as a result.

“A reckoning is coming for schools and universities,” stated Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business, in a recent account in TechCrunch. “We’ve raised prices 1400% but if you walked into a classroom today it wouldn’t look, smell or feel much different from what it did 40 years ago.”

Likening it to a shrinkage in retail – which saw 9,500 closures in 2019 and more than 15,000 so far in 2020 – he predicts a sustained drop in applications for four-year universities, with dozens if not hundreds of colleges and universities unable to recover.

Scott Galloway, professor of marketing, NYU Stern School of Business

Roei Deutsch, co-founder and CEO of live video course marketplace Jolt Inc., stated during a talk on the Coffee Break podcast, “The blow to the world of higher education was bound to come. There is a higher education bubble, something there does not work in terms of cost versus what students receive in return, and you can say that the coronavirus crisis is the beginning of this bubble’s bursting.”

Thus the virus is seen as accelerating a trend that was already underway. The global corporate e-learning market is estimated to grow up to $30 billion at a 13% compound annual growth rate through 2022. “This growth was driven in large part by the increased importance of matching workforce capabilities with actual required skill sets,” stated Joe Apprendi, a general partner at Revel, a venture capital firm formed by business founders, author of the TechCrunch article.

New core education products, as suggested by teacher Norton, include learning experience platforms (LXP) and learning management systems (LMS), used to monitor, track and administer employment learning activities.

Learning software is primarily designed to create more personalized learning experiences and help users discover new learning opportunities by combining learning content from different sources, while recommending and delivering them — with the support of AI — across multiple digital touch points such as desktop applications and mobile learning apps.

Colleges, universities and enterprises are all looking at these tools. Instead of building training academics to help train people for new or expanded roles in an organization, “Enterprises will now target the front end of the recruiting funnel where higher education begins,” Apprendi suggests. “The potential for global enterprises to own the university experience is suddenly, very real.” The online faculty could be professors from shuttered universities. A hybrid, for-profit model that blends universities and global enterprises could emerge, along the lines of the US Naval Academy, where a tuition-free education comes with an obligation to serve for a period of time.

“Students could see debt cut in half and have a clear path forward toward employment,” he stated. Whatever landscape emerges, changes are in store for universities and colleges.

Software Helping with Remote Learning Challenges

Meanwhile back in K-12 education, the transition to remote learning has been challenging. Many students fail to log into classrooms or complete assignments, according to a recent account in TechRepublic. The number of students logging in has declined by 43% since the start of school closures, and the number of students completing at least one virtual lesson has dropped by 44%, according to a report from Achieve3000. The report was based on data from 1.6 million students across 1,364 school districts.

The transition to e-learning is particularly difficult for struggling readers, who need more time and individual assistance with lessons, the report found. An innovative approach is taken by AI-powered software Amira, designed to remotely help students become better readers.

Amira has been recognized, such as with a nomination for a Codie Award for Best Use of Emerging Technology for Learning in Education. Amira is an intelligent reading assistant designed from decades of research on the science of reading from the University of Texas, and AI in support of reading development from Carnegie Mellon University.

“Amira listens, delivers in-the-moment error-specific feedback, and reports progress for every reading session,” stated Sara Erickson, Amira’s vice president of customer success. “Amira is changing how teachers focus their reading instruction with the help of machine learning to accelerate student reading growth.”

As the student reads, Amira uses AI to decipher what obstacles the young reader is facing, delivering micro-interventions that help to bridge the reading skills gaps. The software helps assess reading fluency, pinpoint errors, and help improve those weaknesses.

“Teachers will never be replaced by software, but they can be supported by it,” Erickson stated. Approximately 125 school districts are currently using Amira, with the K-3 student population in those districts totaling more than 600,000.

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