How AI will transform education in 2017

Education has mostly followed the same structure for centuries, e.g., the “sage on a stage” and “assembly line” models. As AI continues to disrupt industries like consumer electronics, ecommerce, media, transportation, and healthcare, is education the next big opportunity?
Given that education is the foundation that prepares people to pursue advancements in all the other fields, it has the potential to be the most impactful application of AI.
The three segments of the education market, K-12, higher education, and corporate training, are going through transitions. In the K-12 market, we are seeing the effect of the newer, more rigorous academic standards (Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards) shifting the focus toward measuring students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills and preparing them for college and career success in the 21st century.
In higher education, we are seeing the shift toward online learning through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) as a way to deal with the burgeoning problem of student debt. In corporate learning, we are seeing the shift toward virtual training, as HR departments focus on cutting costs and improving employee productivity.
The education industry has primarily three types of players, content, platform, and assessment providers, and each is going through a transition. The content publishers are bracing with the challenges of the print-to-digital transition, as well providing content for the open education resources. The learning platforms are trying to differentiate in the adaptivity, personalization, and analytics space. And assessment will continue to play a pivotal role in transforming the education industry as it transitions from multiple-choice tests toward more innovative question types.
How AI will help
In terms of technology adoption, education has remained a “developing nation” among the industries. However, this is an advantage, as it need not go through the installation of traditional infrastructure that other industries had to go through, and instead can leapfrog by directly adopting mobile smartphone technology.
The dynamics generated by the key trends and players suggest a need for a disruptive innovation in education. As budgets shrink and classroom sizes increase, it is imperative that we leverage advancements in technology to improve the productivity and efficiency of the education system. AI, in particular, can play an important role in improving the quality and affordability of education. We will see several applications of AI in education in 2017, such as:
AI for grading students’ written answers
Bots that answer students’ questions
Virtual personal assistants that tutor students
Virtual reality and computer vision for immersive, hands-on learning
Simulations and gamification with rich learning analytics
Take, for example, the grading (assessment) problem, which is at the core of education. As the quote goes, you cannot improve what you cannot measure. Cognitive psychology suggests that the best way to assess learning is to ask open-response (essay) questions and allow students to explain in their own words. However, due to the time and cost associated with grading open-response answers, it is used very infrequently, and instead we rely on the 100-year-old multiple choice test as the primary form of assessment.
Conversational Edtech
Educational assessment of students’ open-response answers is a natural language processing problem. The text in a student’s answer has syntactic and semantic structures similar to those of a social media status update or a product review.
Likewise, an AI can be trained to analyze and grade a student’s answer reliably and can be as accurate as a human and at a cost that is orders of magnitude lower than that of human grading. ETS has successfully used AI as a replacement for one of the two humans for grading SAT and GRE essays.
Bots for education will also play an important role in scaling online learning, as when Georgia Tech professor Ashok Goel used AI as a teacher’s assistant that answered students’ questions successfully. We flip that model. Instead of a student asking a question, our AI asks a question, the student answers it in natural language, and the AI evaluates the answer and provides instant tutoring feedback. This is known as a formative assessment in the education field, as its purpose is to improve the student’s conceptual understanding of a topic.
AI will benefit all the stakeholders of the education ecosystem. Students would be able to learn better with instant feedback and guidance, teachers would get rich learning analytics and insights to personalize instruction, parents would see improved career prospects for their children at a reduced cost, schools would be able to scale high-quality education, and governments would be able to provide affordable education to all.
The adoption of AI in education will continue to rise as schools and universities develop their online strategies to reduce the cost and improve outcomes. In a recently released K-12 Horizon report by NMC/CoSN, AI and VR were considered two of the important technology trends that will transform education over the next four to five years. According to market research firm Technavio, the AI market in education will continue to grow exponentially, at 39 percent CAGR over the next four years.
As AI takes center stage in 2017, conversational education will emerge as a key application, one potentially more impactful than conversational commerce.