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Intelligence Unleashed

Experts make the case for harnessing AI to achieve education reform.

A new paper by Pearson​,​ in collaboration with the UCL Knowledge Lab​,​ makes the case for why we must take artificial intelligence in education (AIEd) more seriously, and how we can begin to do so​.​ Although some might find the concept of AIEd slightly unnerving, ​the authors do not see a future in which AIEd replaces teachers. ​Instead, they see a future in which the extraordinary expertise of teachers is better leveraged and augmented through the thoughtful deployment of well​-​designed AIEd​ tools​.

Sir Michael Barber, ​Pearson's ​Chief Education Adviser ​has ​said, “There is no doubt that AI will significantly influence what we teach and learn, as well as how we do it. The challenge is to ensure that it truly supports teachers, learners, and their parents. Many important decisions will need to be made as these technologies develop, mature, and scale; this paper offers some concrete options that will allow us to realize the potential of AIEd at the system level.”

We wrote this short paper on artificial intelligence in education (AIEd) with two aims in mind. The first was to explain to a non-specialist, interested reader what AIEd is: its goals, how it is built, and how it works. After all, only by securing a certain degree of understanding can we move beyond the science-fiction imagery of AI, and the associated fears. The second aim was to set out the argument for what AIEd can offer learning, both now and in the future, with an eye towards improving learning and life outcomes for all.

Throughout, our approach has been to start with teaching and learning – and then describe how well designed and thoughtful AIEd can usefully contribute. Crucially we do not see a future in which AIEd replaces teachers. What we do see is a future in which the role of the teacher continues to evolve and is eventually transformed; one where their time is used more effectively and efficiently, and where their expertise is better deployed, leveraged, and augmented.

Although some might find the concept of AIEd alienating, the algorithms and models that comprise AIEd form the basis of an essentially human endeavour. AIEd offers the possibility of learning that is more personalised, flexible, inclusive, and engaging. It can provide teachers and learners with the tools that allow us to respond not only to what is being learnt, but also to how it is being learnt, and how the student feels. It can help learners develop the knowledge and skills that employers are seeking, and it can help teachers create more sophisticated learning environments than would otherwise be possible. For example, AIEd that can enable collaborative learning, a difficult task for one teacher to do alone, by making sure that the right group is formed for the task-at-hand, or by providing targeted support at just the right time.

We look towards a future when extraordinary AIEd tools will support teachers in meeting the needs of all learners. Drawing on the power of both human and artificial intelligence, we will lessen achievement gaps, address teacher retention and development, and equip parents to better support their children’s (and their own) learning. Importantly, doing this will require much more than borrowing the language of AI – we need to go deep, harnessing the power of genuine AIEd, and then working to apply it in real-life contexts at scale.

True progress will require the development of an AIEd infrastructure. This will not, however, be a single monolithic AIEd system. Instead, it will resemble the marketplace that has developed for smartphone apps: hundreds and then thousands of individual AIEd components, developed in collaboration with educators, conformed to uniform international data standards, and shared with researchers and developers worldwide. These standards will enable system-level data collation and analysis that help us learn much more about learning itself and how to improve it.

If we are ultimately successful, AIEd will also contribute a proportionate response to the most significant social challenge that AI has already brought – the steady replacement of jobs and occupations with clever algorithms and robots. It is our view that this phenomena provides a new innovation imperative in education, which can be expressed simply: as humans live and work alongside increasingly smart machines, our education systems will need to achieve at levels that none have managed to date.

Our response, we argue, should be to take on the role of metaphorical judo masters. That is, we should harness the power and strength of AI itself. In that way we can help teachers to equip learners – whatever their age – with the knowledge and flexible skills that will allow them to unleash their human intelligence and thrive in this re-shaped workforce.

To be candid, the impetus for this paper arose from our impatience with the status quo. Despite nearly three decades of work, AIEd is in many ways still a cottage industry, and the benefits and enormous potential of the field remain mostly unrealised. Sadly, many of the best ideas in AIEd currently make it no further than the lab, or perhaps a lecture hall. AIEd is hampered by a funding system that encourages siloed research, and that shies away from dealing with the essential messiness of education contexts. We believe this needs to change.

This is our attempt at contributing to that change, through explaining, arguing, and putting forward some evocative, and perhaps provocative, views of the future. It is our hope that this paper will provide a deeper understanding of AIEd, and stimulate a much-needed debate.

Let us start by introducing AI.

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Rose Luckin, Wayne Holmes, UCL Knowledge Lab, University College London
Mark Griffiths, Laurie B. Forcier, Pearson


Education, Technology, Research