The future of AI teachers in higher education

Julian powered by Google teaches and learns at Walden University

Stephen Tom, chief customer officer of Adtalem Global Education, was at a conference several years ago and saw a presentation by an AI guru that made him think bigger. The tool he saw took the students’ questions and answered them according to what he called a scenario, following a predetermined path programmed by a human on the back end, the idea was, in the end, to get the student to the correct answer. It looked a lot like adaptive learning, a concept that’s been around for decades and has failed to take off, in part because it requires so much programming effort and is somewhat inflexible in how it responds.

“Someone had to spend hours and hours and days and days asking questions, writing a script of how the teacher would interact with the student,” says Tom. “Then the AI ​​part of it was like you’re reading a news article and giving it a thumbs up, thumbs down — the kind of learning that depends on whether you like the question or not. In that sense, it wasn’t really dynamic, it wasn’t really scalable.”

This experience put Tom on a mission to solve both weaknesses.

His first step was to connect with Google’s teams working on artificial intelligence and higher education. Tom’s team at Walden University, an online university recently acquired by Adtalem, worked with Google to build an artificial intelligence tutor that will be offered to students and faculty in the name of Julian in the spring of 2021.

“We wanted to see if we could take on this challenge of creating a truly dynamic, unstructured AI teacher that could take in the content on their own, make sense of it, pull key concepts out of it and then reinforce it with the student a tutoring session where she could ask her own questions and fully assess students’ answers from their own,” says Tom. “At the time, it was kind of a distant dream.”

Today, Tom says, that dream is at least partially fulfilled.

Julian is more dynamic than most AI teachers. By design, it was thrown in cycles where it is not easy for a machine to tell whether an answer is true or false (unlike, say, a math cycle). In Walden, Julian’s first courses were in early childhood education and sociology.

explore: Successful examples of artificial intelligence in higher education can inspire our future.

And while Julian doesn’t exactly judge right or wrong — he doesn’t do any classification, for example — he absorbs information and learns as is. It uses the same course materials that are given to students, and directs them back to those sources in response to the questions they ask. Then, it takes those questions and answers and feeds them back into itself to figure out what the students are asking about and grows smarter next time, says Tom.

Because it was developed with Google, Julian lives in the Google Cloud, which means it has taken very little infrastructure investment on Walden’s part. Tom says the programmers chose to use the API to run the tool, with an eye toward its future use.

Because it’s API-driven, Tom says, Julian is likely to appear in many environments: While he’s currently a chatbot embedded in a university’s learning management system, he could easily exist as an avatar in a virtual or augmented reality environment, or as a voice on phone in the future.

Georgia Tech looks to the future

The future is also where the innovative team at Georgia Tech focuses. The university that brought Jill Watson to life for the first time has since rolled out two new tools related to AI teaching: AskJill and Agent Smith. The Atlanta-based university recently helped create the National Institute of Artificial Intelligence for Adult Education and Online Education (AI-ALOE) thanks to a five-year, $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The grant will fund “large-scale investments” in technology infrastructure, according to Ashok Joel, professor of computer science at Georgia Tech and executive director of AI-ALOE. Investments will be directed toward data storage, compliance, and cybersecurity.

AI-ALOE is particularly concerned with adult learners, as the name suggests. Joel says he expects that millions of Americans will need to be reskilled or reskilled in the next decade because automation will change the way we work, and these people will no longer be traditional college students. They will have families, jobs, and other responsibilities, and may not make it to their courses until the early hours of the night or on the weekends, when professors, teaching assistants and human tutors are unavailable, adding to the need for AI assistance.

Read more: Improve online learning and more with artificial intelligence.

For the initiative itself, Goel wants to bring AI educators out into the world at large. Jill Watson is great, he says, but the effort to create a Watson generation makes it nearly impossible to replicate in other higher education institutions or in K-12 environments. Another goal of the program – improving the capabilities of the AI ​​itself – will go hand in hand with the expanded use of a tool like Jill Watson.

Joel says Georgia Tech’s AI tools have learned from more than 40,000 user questions over the years. This may sound impressive at first, but Joel says 4 million questions would be a lot better to learn from.

Even with AI getting smarter, the latest version of AI is designed to help scale it up. Agent Smith (named after the self-reproduction opponent in the matrix Movies) offer the most interesting potential for growth at scale. Agent Smith is a clone, able to replicate Jill Watson AI teacher for courses and classes across the country in under five hours. That’s still too long, Joel says, and the AI ​​guru interface is still a bit insufficient, but the team is making progress.

“Why not offer AI tutors to every teacher, every learner, and every class in the world?” Joel asks. “If Jill Watson remains a source of only 30 chapters, that’s interesting, but it doesn’t change the rules of the game. It only becomes a game-changer if anyone can use it.”

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