Artificial Intelligence: Putting educators in the driving seat towards our future economy

David Barnett, Managing Director of Pearson Australia, presented as part of EduTECH’s 2017 Higher Education Leader’s Congress in Brisbane. The below is an extract from his speech, exploring the huge potential benefits Artificial Intelligence can bring to learners of all ages and stages.

AIEd 1

As Malcolm Turnbull says, there's never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. While the line is now a little overused, it is true. Especially with a national innovation agenda underway and a rapidly changing education sector, changing workforce and Australian economy.

To get us in the mindspace of our future economy, let’s visualise something perhaps only a few years from now. Picture a Brisbane businesswoman, we’ll call her Susan. Susan is driving to work when the AI system on her car tablet - we’ll call her Amy - asks her if she would like to practise her Japanese. Amy says: “You’re conducting an end of financial year review at 11am, so I suggest we work on past tense today.”

You see, while advances in real-time speech-translation mean Susan can speak her native language in online meetings with the Tokyo office and still be understood, she finds her colleagues appreciate the effort to speak Japanese; it breaks the ice.

This is an example from the not too distant future of ‘AIEd.’ Which is a much cooler way of explaining the application of artificial intelligence to education. The concept is not new and already exists in many adaptive learning environments. However we are poised to see AIEd become a radical game-changer in education.

If we let it.

Technology - disruptor or innovator?

At Pearson, we have seen many schools and universities struggle with new technology, and the pros and cons of disruption and innovation. In fact we have had our own challenges with moving from being a textbook publisher to who we are today: the world’s leading learning company, committed to helping our learners, teachers and partner institutions to improve outcomes.   

I speak as not as an educator but as a layperson who has led our attempts to help schools and universities make more effective use of digital learning products, with some hits and some misses. I’ve seen the challenges that arise when learning environments aren’t ready and when instructors aren’t confident. I’ve seen instances where technology has been made the centrepiece, not the enabler. I’ve also seen the benefits that can arise when technology enhances good teaching and learning by allowing learners to do things they could not do without it.

In 2012 I was a member of the then Federal Government’s Digital Education Advisory Group, created to find ways of achieving high quality, contemporary, learning outcomes from existing investments in digital education.

In Australia, we have seen schools, universities and governments invest millions of dollars in smart boards, tablets, laptops, and applications and learning management systems, only to abandon them because the educators found using them too difficult, they didn’t live up to their promise, they didn’t change classroom practice, or simply didn’t work at all.

As recently as two months ago, we saw one high profile school ban laptops from classes, instead making students hand write assignments and essays until Year 10, claiming computers are a distraction.

Well they shouldn’t be. Just like in most workplaces, technology should be seen as seamless, integrated, and supportive, letting you get on with the job and increasing productivity and participation.

Modern learning for a modern workplace

The big ticket item we looked at on the DEAG was the $2.4 billion Digital Education Revolution package, which used taxpayer funds to buy laptops for high school students. Some good work was done in thinking about how to leverage this significant investment to improve learning outcomes, and a central theme of our discussions and the report was the urgent need to build teacher capacity. Unfortunately the report sank without trace.


One of the panel members, Greg Whitby (Executive Director of Schools at the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta) said ‘It always surprises me to hear people talking about going back to the “good old days” of schooling but no one ever talks about returning to the good old days of medicine! Would you get your tonsils removed at a hospital that was built in the 1930s and hasn’t changed since?’ 


This doesn’t just apply to schools. Until all of us start to view technology as an enabler, our educators will struggle to deliver this country’s innovation agenda. The world in which we will send our learners is uncertain and changing rapidly. Right now, some Australian educators are in danger of descending into irrelevance, by allowing economists to lead the debate about the future skills and jobs of Australians. This should be the domain of educators.

We should acknowledge it: advancements in technology will result in the replacement of some jobs and occupations by algorithms or robots. This is as inevitable as the implications of the car were for the horse and carriage.After all, who is better equipped to address radically shifting skill development needs than those who intimately understandthat giving our kids the confidence to develop the right skills, adapt and be resilient in these exciting times will be a key to their success?

Intelligence unleashed


Pearson recently released a research report called“Intelligence Unleashed: an argument for AI in Education.”


A quote from the paper reads: ‘…as humans live and work alongside increasingly smart machines, our education systems will need to achieve levels that none have managed to date. True progress will require the development of an AIEd infrastructure... that will resemble the marketplace that has developed for smartphone apps… conformed to uniform international data standards and shared with researchers and developers worldwide.’


Rather than fearing the inevitable, educators could be learning how to harness the power of AI to better equip both students and society at large to adapt to a re-shaped workforce. There is enormous opportunity for educators to write their own future but this will only happen if we move past the fear of technology. 


Today’s skills for tomorrow’s workforce

Businesses’ embrace of technology is that much more comfortable because they have more immediate pressure from shareholders, staff and customers.

If the education community Australia wide believes, as do we at Pearson, that the ultimate goal of education is employability, our sector should wrap our arms around technology just as tight as business does.

Many companies are currently combining the cloud and mobile to deliver services, yet Gartner analyst Tom Austin said in a recent article that this is starting to evolve into something even bigger.

To paraphrase: 'We are are creating and moving artificial intelligence to the cloud. Microsoft currently offers more than 20 “cognitive services”, such as analysing images, known as computer vision, and language comprehension.'

Cloud-delivered services like these are starting to proliferate as companies move their large data sets onto the cloud. And so should universities and other learning institutions. Under Malcolm Turnbull the Federal Government moved public government data to the cloud in his first few months of office, a move to be applauded.


The humans & expertise behind technology

Back to our Brisbane businesswoman, Susan: While she may be learning through AI-assisted technology, it doesn’t mean that educators have ceased to exist. The educational expertise required to create her lifelong learning companion was provided by pedagogic experts performing vastly different functions to those they do today.

Educators must be central to the design of AIEd tools. After all, behind every lifelong learning companion sits a team of humans with educational and technical expertise.

As I’ve mentioned, at Pearson we have had our fits and starts with technology, most recently with research and development of AIEd products and services. Even now, we’re still trying to put our money where our mouth is. And so in the hope that you do too, here are some examples of what we are working on right now:

  • For schools, we are working on a range of online education games based on AI. The aim is that these will replace traditional assessment. Unlike tests and other school work, students aren’t afraid to fail in games. They understand that progress in the game happens through experimentation, failure, and adaptation. Games provide the opportunity for teachers to see in real time how their students are progressing and how they can assist, instead of looking at a single mark at a single point in time and wondering what went right or wrong.
  • In Higher Education, we have a personalised learning and analytics team working to improve teaching and learning through smart technology, particularly in data analytics.  They are working on learning systems and personalised educational experiences. Personalised learning is not new to us; it is a feature that currently exists in our Mastering platform. But we are working on more offerings in online and hybrid learning environments.  It’s all in an attempt to make the one-size-fits-all approach to education a thing of the past.
  • For our life-long learners. we have recently established an Advanced Computing and Data Science Lab acting as an incubator for software, products and ideas. The initial focus is on adaptive learning and predictive and evaluative analytics. An example of what we are trialling is a card-based program that extends the idea of "smart flash cards." Cards are created intelligently from text and images based on adaptive learning algorithms. And of course you can share your assessment results through social channels.

Hopefully this demonstrates just how huge the potential for technology-assisted education is.  One day soon we will look back on a past limited by what John Hattie calls ‘distractors’ (things like student-teacher ratios and class sizes) and marvel not at how much has changed, but at how long we clung to the past.AIEd6

What could our future look like?

Let’s examine a couple of examples of how AIEd might bring about very positive change, just within the next 5-10 years.

The K-12 Sector

As Australia moves towards online assessment for the NAPLAN over the next few years, AIEd is poised to play a significant role in enabling the development of effective and personalised assessment. Rather than the current ‘event-based’ approach, on a given day in May, with all of the associated stresses and unintended negativity, students will be able to take the test when their teacher thinks they’re ready. They will be able to take it multiple times. Adaptive testing functionality will provide questions that suit the ability of the individual student, thus making the experience more effective and engaging. Machines will mark written work, taking human variability out of the equation. These technologies will allow a far closer integration between assessment and the remediation strategies, via greater insights to teachers, thanks to the data.

Higher Education Sector

With attrition rates in first year sitting at around 15%, universities are being challenged to rethink their approach to student engagement and retention. In an article published last November, the Conversation suggested that ‘Uni drop-out rates show the need for more support, not capped enrolments’. Not only does this issue create additional cost and loss of value for the sector, but of course each of those students incurs a debt which, without a high enough income, will never be repaid. Of course, this points to a deeper problem. To quote The Conversation again:

‘Better support needs to be offered to students post-enrolment to ensure they successfully complete their studies. The more diverse our student population becomes, and the more diverse their prior educational backgrounds, the more diverse our universities need to be in supporting their educational needs.’

I would agree with that conclusion. Pearson provides a range of student services to institutional partners, including student support and retention services. We are currently providing these services to Monash and Griffith Universities, via our team of student success specialists.

But what if, through the application of AI Ed to student data sets, and the use of analytics, new insights could be gained, about these students? What if, by including specific information about individual students, such as educational and socio-economic background, we could identify students on a path to fail far earlier, and develop more sophisticated, more targeted intervention and support strategies?

What if that information was provided via alerts to teaching faculty? There are clearly technical and data privacy challenges but the technology to enable this is essentially already here, under experiment. With the continued growth in cloud computing and the development of AI technologies to data in the cloud, the possibilities for real improvement here are exciting.

The future of education will only be in the hands of educators if they embrace and master intelligent technologies that can not only think for us, but think with us. They have the power to truly change and empower instructors from K12 through Higher Education; empower them to impact on the lives of their students in new and wonderful ways.

But only if we let them.


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