What Artificial Intelligence Could Mean For Education


An artificially intelligent computer system built by Google has just beaten the world’s best human, Lee Sedol of South Korea, at an ancient strategy game called Go. Go originated in Asia about 2,500 years ago and is considered many, many times more complex than chess, which fell to AI back in 1997.

And here’s what’s really crazy. Google’s programmers didn’t explicitly teach AlphaGo to play the game. Instead, they built a sort of model brain called a neural network that learned how to play Go by itself.

Here at NPR Ed, our mission is to cover how learning happens. The advent of computer systems that “learn” surely falls into this category.

And it poses some fascinating questions. First: What could AI technologies do for human education? Second: How should human education respond to the challenges posed by AI?

To the first question, Pearson, the world’s largest education company, has just issued a pamphlet from its research division titled Intelligence Unleashed: An argument for AI in Education.

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I spoke to Laurie Forcier, one of the authors. She told me that existing computer systems can already provide some of the benefits of one-on-one tutoring. They can also facilitate and moderate group discussions and simulate complex environments for the purpose of learning.

The Pearson report predicts software that will bring helpful feedback in an instant about students’ progress, their knowledge state and even their state of mind — eliminating the need to stop and give a standardized test.

On a more futuristic, somewhat creepier note, Forcier and her co-authors also suggest the development of something called a “lifelong learning companion.” This is a concept first introduced by early AI researchers decades ago.

Like an imaginary friend, learning companions would accompany students — asking questions, providing encouragement, offering suggestions and connections to resources, helping you talk through difficulties. Over time, the companion would “learn” what you know, what interests you, and what kind of learner you are.

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With all its data in the cloud, accessible by phone or laptop, it could follow you from school to soccer practice to internship to college and beyond, and be a valuable record of learning in all contexts. Maybe your learning companion could even write you a letter of recommendation that could serve as a credential.

“Why is the pamphlet called, ‘an argument for AI in education’ ?” I asked Forcier. “Who’s arguing against it?”

She said that, of course, there are fears about AI being used to replace human teachers.;

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