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  • Intelligence Unleashed: an argument for AI in education

    by Michael Barber

    hero img

    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).

    ***

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

    read more
  • The case for "unbundling" the teacher

    by Michael Barber

    hero img

    For most of the past century we have bundled a very complex set of disparate skills into a single role we call the ‘classroom teacher’. Teachers must have deep content knowledge to understand the scope and sequence of a curriculum, and pedagogical expertise to plan effective lessons and evaluate student comprehension and mastery. We also ask them to be charismatic presenters, a coach/mentor to provide support and motivation for students to persevere, and project managers able to keep track of each students academic progress.

    It is incredibly difficult, and perhaps unrealistic, to expect to find such a diverse skill-set in a single individual. As a result the past few years has seen various attempts to “unbundle” the teacher. While much is made of the developed world’s experiments with unbundling, most notably flipped classrooms and MOOCs, some of the most interesting innovations are occurring in the developing world where the dual constraints of limited financial resources and a weak labor pool make the need for new solutions all the more pressing.

    The Pearson Affordable Learning Fund has invested in some exceptional entrepreneurs that are tackling this challenge head-on.

    For example, at SPARK, a school chain in South Africa, a highly trained teacher is in charge of the whole group and guided practice portions of the typical learning cycle, while the independent practice portion of the learning is done primarily with the aid of “e-learning labs.” Here students work to reinforce and extend classroom instruction with personalized computer programs overseen by a more junior assistant.

    This allows the extremely valuable time of the master teacher to be dedicated to the more complex tasks of implementing best-in-class instructional methods and overseeing classroom management. As a result, the cost of delivering high-quality education is substantially lower, while quality is maintained.

    Another example of the same trend is provided by Bridge International Academies, who dedicate the bulk of their six-week teacher training program to focusing on techniques for classroom management, student engagement, and checking for understanding, while a team of world-class educators based in Boston and Nairobi write a rigorous, student-focused lesson script which the teachers read on an e-book during class.

    Visiting a Bridge classroom you will see students being pushed to perform more challenging cognitive tasks (for instance, instead of simply writing down a list of map symbols they will be using these symbols to draw a map of their own neighborhood) with teachers circulating the classroom carefully checking students work. Both of which are rarely found in a typical classroom in Kenya.

    My prediction is that 2016 will see much more piloting, experimenting and testing of these new models. Some will be taken to scale, most obviously through new public-private partnerships that are able to see the value in moving away from the old model of a single, jack of all trades, teacher. This division of labour will allow expertise to be deployed where it is most needed, and where it can best be found - and the impact on learning will become increasingly visible.

    ***

    Read more about the work of SPARK and Bridge.

    read more
  • How to kickstart an education transformation

    by Michael Barber

    hero img

    Transforming anything needs bold people to kickstart it. And if you’re in any doubt that education needs some bold transformation, then you don’t have to search too far for the evidence. For example, the 101 million children not in school in Sub-Saharan Africa, or the 93 million women there classed as illiterate. Or how about the 14% of US adults who cannot read. In its latest report the OECD stated that “no country, no region in the world can claim in 2015 that all of its youth have attained at least a minimum proficiency in foundation skills.

    We can all play our part in kickstarting a transformation in education, because we all own the culture of education. Teachers, parents, students, governments, businesses… we all define the culture that sets the standards. The ‘right’ culture is one of the key explanations for the dominance of South-East Asian nations at the top of most education league tables; that believes that every learner can succeed rather than deciding at the outset that some are smart and others not; that as well as ambitious expectations has clear goalposts, high levels of community involvement, and a strong sense of accountability among all stakeholders. It’s what Hwy-Chang Moon, a dean of Seoul National University, calls “a mentality of the first-tier.”

    Our education kickstarters are the people social scientists would refer to as the ‘innovators’, those on the left of the bell curve of adoption.

    They are the minority that, if all goes well, morph into the majority. And to their far right, the laggards, the chorus of cynics sayingWhat’s all this nonsense of new ideas and technology!.  They will try to derail you, mud wrestle you into distractions by asking how you’re going to get ‘buy-in’ and ‘take people with you’. But you don’t win hearts and minds and then make the change; you make the change, and the hearts and minds will follow.

    In an increasingly globalised world, a bold vision doesn’t just have to stand up to where you’re coming from, but where everyone else in the world is at. I was reminded of this on one of my visits to Punjab, Pakistan, where I have been working with the Chief Minister for a number of years (unrelated to my role at Pearson.) A government official was very proud to tell me how only 5% of kids cheated in exams, which was a huge improvement. I reminded him that in England the figure is 0.014%, 400 times better.

    Obama called it “the audacity of hope”, but hope alone is not enough. Transformation is much more forensic than that. It needs a plan that spells out that this is where we are now, and this is where we can get to, and this is who’s going to need to do what, when, and how. And this is how we’ll know if it’s working.

    Data will let you do that last one. And the closer to real-time that data is, the better. The world moves far too fast for data to have a shelf life. In Punjab we went from having no insight into what was happening in schools, to now collecting data against 16 indicators from 55,000 schools every month. Additionally we collect data from 25,000 schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Province of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, prone to terrible winters, earthquakes, and terrorism. If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.

    The data will indicate where the plan is veering off, so you can decide how to get it back on track. Dig deeper, disaggregate it, find the hotspots where it’s working, where it isn’t, do more of the former and stop doing the latter.

    When you marry all this together - the bold vision, the clear plan, the execution of that plan, and the real-time data that tells you how to adjust - that’s when you do real transformation. It’s how you move from small steps of incremental change to giant leaps of extraordinary outcomes.

    What might an education transformation look like when it’s done? (Of course, it’s never ‘done’!) A school where technology is ubiquitous, classrooms have become wide open spaces, data is helping identify struggling students, progress is measured by grit and resilience as much as English and maths, and Artificial Intelligence diagnoses when a learner is bored, or frustrated, or confused before performing, with the help of an outstanding teacher, a well-designed intervention.

    None of this is to say that education transformation isn’t already happening. Some countries are on the path - Poland and Singapore to name just two; and individuals too, such as, CP Viswanath, founder of Karadi Path. From small beginnings in the slums of India the company now has 800 English language schools across the country. Led by where the evidence has taken them, their students outperform ‘traditional’ classrooms by between 20-60%.

    Last week I was in Davos at the World Economic Forum, where the major challenges facing the world - extreme poverty, civil rights, clean energy, gender equality, affordable healthcare were examined. We don’t have a hope of transforming any of these if we don’t first transform education.

    ***

    Michael Barber is our chief education advisor. Connect with him on Twitter - @MichaelBarber9

    read more
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  • Intelligence Unleashed: an argument for AI in education

    by Michael Barber

    hero img

    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).

    ***

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

    read more
  • The case for "unbundling" the teacher

    by Michael Barber

    hero img

    For most of the past century we have bundled a very complex set of disparate skills into a single role we call the ‘classroom teacher’. Teachers must have deep content knowledge to understand the scope and sequence of a curriculum, and pedagogical expertise to plan effective lessons and evaluate student comprehension and mastery. We also ask them to be charismatic presenters, a coach/mentor to provide support and motivation for students to persevere, and project managers able to keep track of each students academic progress.

    It is incredibly difficult, and perhaps unrealistic, to expect to find such a diverse skill-set in a single individual. As a result the past few years has seen various attempts to “unbundle” the teacher. While much is made of the developed world’s experiments with unbundling, most notably flipped classrooms and MOOCs, some of the most interesting innovations are occurring in the developing world where the dual constraints of limited financial resources and a weak labor pool make the need for new solutions all the more pressing.

    The Pearson Affordable Learning Fund has invested in some exceptional entrepreneurs that are tackling this challenge head-on.

    For example, at SPARK, a school chain in South Africa, a highly trained teacher is in charge of the whole group and guided practice portions of the typical learning cycle, while the independent practice portion of the learning is done primarily with the aid of “e-learning labs.” Here students work to reinforce and extend classroom instruction with personalized computer programs overseen by a more junior assistant.

    This allows the extremely valuable time of the master teacher to be dedicated to the more complex tasks of implementing best-in-class instructional methods and overseeing classroom management. As a result, the cost of delivering high-quality education is substantially lower, while quality is maintained.

    Another example of the same trend is provided by Bridge International Academies, who dedicate the bulk of their six-week teacher training program to focusing on techniques for classroom management, student engagement, and checking for understanding, while a team of world-class educators based in Boston and Nairobi write a rigorous, student-focused lesson script which the teachers read on an e-book during class.

    Visiting a Bridge classroom you will see students being pushed to perform more challenging cognitive tasks (for instance, instead of simply writing down a list of map symbols they will be using these symbols to draw a map of their own neighborhood) with teachers circulating the classroom carefully checking students work. Both of which are rarely found in a typical classroom in Kenya.

    My prediction is that 2016 will see much more piloting, experimenting and testing of these new models. Some will be taken to scale, most obviously through new public-private partnerships that are able to see the value in moving away from the old model of a single, jack of all trades, teacher. This division of labour will allow expertise to be deployed where it is most needed, and where it can best be found - and the impact on learning will become increasingly visible.

    ***

    Read more about the work of SPARK and Bridge.

    read more
  • How to kickstart an education transformation

    by Michael Barber

    hero img

    Transforming anything needs bold people to kickstart it. And if you’re in any doubt that education needs some bold transformation, then you don’t have to search too far for the evidence. For example, the 101 million children not in school in Sub-Saharan Africa, or the 93 million women there classed as illiterate. Or how about the 14% of US adults who cannot read. In its latest report the OECD stated that “no country, no region in the world can claim in 2015 that all of its youth have attained at least a minimum proficiency in foundation skills.

    We can all play our part in kickstarting a transformation in education, because we all own the culture of education. Teachers, parents, students, governments, businesses… we all define the culture that sets the standards. The ‘right’ culture is one of the key explanations for the dominance of South-East Asian nations at the top of most education league tables; that believes that every learner can succeed rather than deciding at the outset that some are smart and others not; that as well as ambitious expectations has clear goalposts, high levels of community involvement, and a strong sense of accountability among all stakeholders. It’s what Hwy-Chang Moon, a dean of Seoul National University, calls “a mentality of the first-tier.”

    Our education kickstarters are the people social scientists would refer to as the ‘innovators’, those on the left of the bell curve of adoption.

    They are the minority that, if all goes well, morph into the majority. And to their far right, the laggards, the chorus of cynics sayingWhat’s all this nonsense of new ideas and technology!.  They will try to derail you, mud wrestle you into distractions by asking how you’re going to get ‘buy-in’ and ‘take people with you’. But you don’t win hearts and minds and then make the change; you make the change, and the hearts and minds will follow.

    In an increasingly globalised world, a bold vision doesn’t just have to stand up to where you’re coming from, but where everyone else in the world is at. I was reminded of this on one of my visits to Punjab, Pakistan, where I have been working with the Chief Minister for a number of years (unrelated to my role at Pearson.) A government official was very proud to tell me how only 5% of kids cheated in exams, which was a huge improvement. I reminded him that in England the figure is 0.014%, 400 times better.

    Obama called it “the audacity of hope”, but hope alone is not enough. Transformation is much more forensic than that. It needs a plan that spells out that this is where we are now, and this is where we can get to, and this is who’s going to need to do what, when, and how. And this is how we’ll know if it’s working.

    Data will let you do that last one. And the closer to real-time that data is, the better. The world moves far too fast for data to have a shelf life. In Punjab we went from having no insight into what was happening in schools, to now collecting data against 16 indicators from 55,000 schools every month. Additionally we collect data from 25,000 schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Province of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, prone to terrible winters, earthquakes, and terrorism. If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.

    The data will indicate where the plan is veering off, so you can decide how to get it back on track. Dig deeper, disaggregate it, find the hotspots where it’s working, where it isn’t, do more of the former and stop doing the latter.

    When you marry all this together - the bold vision, the clear plan, the execution of that plan, and the real-time data that tells you how to adjust - that’s when you do real transformation. It’s how you move from small steps of incremental change to giant leaps of extraordinary outcomes.

    What might an education transformation look like when it’s done? (Of course, it’s never ‘done’!) A school where technology is ubiquitous, classrooms have become wide open spaces, data is helping identify struggling students, progress is measured by grit and resilience as much as English and maths, and Artificial Intelligence diagnoses when a learner is bored, or frustrated, or confused before performing, with the help of an outstanding teacher, a well-designed intervention.

    None of this is to say that education transformation isn’t already happening. Some countries are on the path - Poland and Singapore to name just two; and individuals too, such as, CP Viswanath, founder of Karadi Path. From small beginnings in the slums of India the company now has 800 English language schools across the country. Led by where the evidence has taken them, their students outperform ‘traditional’ classrooms by between 20-60%.

    Last week I was in Davos at the World Economic Forum, where the major challenges facing the world - extreme poverty, civil rights, clean energy, gender equality, affordable healthcare were examined. We don’t have a hope of transforming any of these if we don’t first transform education.

    ***

    Michael Barber is our chief education advisor. Connect with him on Twitter - @MichaelBarber9

    read more
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