Intelligence Unleashed: an argument for AI in education

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For thirty years I have attended conferences where speakers have spoken to slides comparing images of an early 20th century classroom with one from today, and have pointedly asked: ‘why so little change?’ The modern variant goes something like this: smart technologies have already transformed so many parts of our lives – from how we date to how we book a taxi. It would seem that there is no doubt that AI (artificial intelligence) will also significantly influence what we teach and learn, as well as how we do it. And yet...

Adopting a puzzled stance as to why things have not changed more has some value. It prompts us to examine our assumptions, our habits, and our routines. It only takes us so far, though. More is needed.

What we need – what we should demand – is an explanation of why and how things could be different. First, we need to be empowered by an understanding of what artificial intelligence in education (AIEd) is, what it delivers, and how it goes about doing that.

Second, we need a clear explanation of how the field of artificial intelligence can connect to the core of teaching and learning, so that we can avoid general-purpose technologies being used in ways that do not deliver the step changes in learner outcomes we seek. For example, smart technologies that adapt to what is liked, rather than what is learnt, or that deliver more efficient administration, but not more efficient learning.

Third, we need concrete options that will allow us to make the potential of AIEd real at the system level – that is, at the scale that will allow it to support the teaching profession broadly and impact positively on the learning experience of each and every student. And fourth, we need to ask and answer some profound ethical questions – for example, about the acceptable uses that can be made of the data that AIEd collects.

In other words, what we need is a degree of specificity about AIEd that allows us to assess, invest, plan, deliver, and test. This is what our new research paper, 'Intelligence Unleashed', offers – a useful primer on AIEd and a compelling argument about what it can offer learning.

From what AI is and how AIEd-driven learning systems are built, onto its potential role in addressing the profound issue of robots and machines taking over more and more current jobs, it covers a vital range of topics with ease and elegance. It is also a good read, with entertaining references from PacMan and Stephen Hawking, sci-fi and ancient philosophy. And, yes, it is understandable to a non-technical reader!

To make my own case for reading this paper, let me move to a more local, anecdotal, level. Recently a member of my Pearson team talked to me about a phonics learning app he had bought for his young son. We could easily identify the affordances that the technology brought – perfect pronunciation of 42 phonics sounds, infinite patience, and a healthy spillover of engagement from the software to learning.

Yet, it was equally easy to identify ways in which some basic AIEd techniques could have made the app so much better. Content was re-presented even after it had been mastered, which led to boredom. Other content was accessible even though it was much too difficult, leading to frustration. And there were no speech recognition capabilities present to verify the learner’s pronunciation, or blending of sounds.

Asking for these features is not asking for science fiction. Instead, it is asking us to incorporate findings from fields like the learning sciences into AIEd tools so that these insights are realised in cheaper, more effective ways. This paper offers a long-list of where we should look for this combination of learning insights and technology – for example, collaborative learning, meta-cognition (or knowing about one’s own thinking), useful feedback, and student motivation.

Funders and founders, policy makers and philanthropists – in fact, anyone who takes seriously the urgent need to embark on the next stage of education system reform – should read and debate this paper. Only then will we (finally) make good on the promise of smarter technologies for learning (and, as a side effect, get rid of those boring slides).

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Read the full report - Intelligence Unleashed: An Argument for AI in Education