In January 2016, she was put to work as a teaching assistant and tasked with answering hundreds of questions lobbed at her by students of an online computer course. She worked tirelessly, without taking a single lunch or coffee break, and students could reach her at any time of the day or night.
Meet Jill Watson, the world’s first artificially intelligent teaching assistant. Her creator, Ashok Goel, Professor and Director, Georgia Tech Design & Intelligence Lab, describes her as a “proxy” for teachers, and an “amplification of their voice”.
In fact, Watson turned out to be so good at her job that she inspired newer and smarter generations of virtual assistants, powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), which are now transforming classroom experiences in schools and colleges around the world.
There is obviously huge potential for machine intelligence to contribute to a 24/7 learning environment for students that achieves a deep level of personalisation to how they learn.
“There is obviously huge potential for machine intelligence to contribute to a 24/7 learning environment for students that achieves a deep level of personalisation to how they learn,” says Emma Whale, Vice-President — Schools at Pearson Middle East.
In the near future, Whale sees more primary and secondary students attending schools virtually, rather than relying solely on bricks-and-mortar institutions. Besides, this change fits in neatly with the Rahhal initiative in the UAE, which has the stated goal of turning anyone, anywhere into a lifelong learner.
Dr Hisham Al Saghbini, Senior Regional Recognition and Assessment Services Manager, Central Region for Cambridge Assessment English, says in education, AI is at a transitional stage and many schools in the UAE have started moving towards digital technologies, leveraging them to personalise learning experiences and become inclusive.
The critical point in this debate is not the technology itself, but rather, how teachers are using it to transform learning.
“The critical point in this debate is not the technology itself, but rather, how teachers are using it to transform learning,” he says, adding that the most notable advantage that AI and ML bring is recognising learning patterns of each student and providing instant feedback.
AI and ML, when used correctly in the classrooms, have the ability to be powerful learning-enhancing tools, says Bharat Mansukhani, Regional Managing Director — Middle East, International School Partnerships, which owns The Aquila School and Nibras International School (NIS) in Dubai and the Reach British School (RBS) in Abu Dhabi.
AI and ML not only have an ability to cater to different learning styles and interests of our students, but the positive effects that the personalised learning has can be seen in their overall development.
“Our senior students are given personalised devices like Google Chromebooks and Apple iPads, while our primary students learn through various English, reading and maths AI programmes,” says Mansukhani, adding, “AI and ML not only have an ability to cater to different learning styles and interests of our students, but the positive effects that the personalised learning has can be seen in their overall development.”
Cambridge Assessment English has created Linguaskill, which uses AI for English language testing. The system learns from the answers a student provides, automatically personalising and adjusting the test to match each individual’s proficiency level. And while Al Saghbini expects AI and ML to have a serious impact on how learning takes place in classrooms, he does not expect these technologies to fully replace traditional classes or teaching programmes. Instead, they will greatly ease mechanical tasks of a teacher, such as grading exams or assessing a student’s progress.
AI leverages digital infrastructure in more effective ways to make data-driven decisions.
Rohit Bhargava, Business Unit Head at Cloud Box Technologies, an IT infrastructure solution provider, describes AI as an engine that can assess, design and drive efforts in teaching conventional content in newer, interactive ways. “AI leverages digital infrastructure in more effective ways to make data-driven decisions,” he says.
AI and ML will also be used outside of classrooms to upgrade the entire school management system. The faculty can make the classroom experience more engaging by using AI and ML to create new course content — including videos, images and audio lessons — based on analytics from students’ previous participation levels.
“The classroom of the future will have teaching assistant robots alongside human facilitators,” explains Bhargava.
AI: A key wild card
Dr Paul Richards, Superintendent, American School of Dubai (ASD), believes AI is a key wild card in the world of schooling. However, leveraging it requires leaders not only to be courageous but also show urgency.
Schools that fail to leverage these tools are on a slow slide toward irrelevance, as they will not produce graduates who are future ready, and students will turn elsewhere for what they need
“Schools that fail to leverage these tools are on a slow slide toward irrelevance, as they will not produce graduates who are future ready, and students will turn elsewhere for what they need,” he warns.
In 2020-2021, ASD is introducing additional courses in AI, cybersecurity and digital art. And from August, its Early Learning Centre will provide state-of-the-art learning spaces to promote AI and ML, as well as design and entrepreneurial skills. “The new school model is hybrid. It promotes not only traditional literacies but also information, data and ICT literacies,” says Dr Richards.