Those who are involved in online education tend to use Artificial Intelligence (AI). While  there are some very interesting uses, it is not going to help us in the current situation.  AI has interesting future applications, but is not at a mature stage at present.

Problems in our education sectors have always seemed fixable with the help of government policies and the forces of Student Unions. As Covid-19 has shuttered businesses and colleges, some might believe that it may lead to an unwelcome way of teaching: online learning.

Therefore, the ability to understand AI has quickly become a powerful tool. On 10 April, Google and Apple announced how they would work together to create an app that can help in contact tracing. With most companies shifting towards AI (to battle Covid 19), the education sector seems to be heading [in the same] direction.

Artificial Intelligence in the Education sector

“We are getting a sense that a lot of these changes are going to be with us for some [time]. Whether they are all good remains to be seen,” said Dr Conor Galvin for the UCD School of Education. “I’ve had a strong sense that there [has been] a good will amongst students and academics for the last couple of months. However, in terms of education policy and system in the longer game I don’t think it’s going to be a big game changer as people think it is.”

“In the Irish system we have seen different reactions, for example DCU embraced much more quickly, the idea of going online completely and have decided to stay there, whereas UCD is pushing more towards the idea of offering full and complete on site experience. The ideal here is to get us back on campus as soon as we can and that’s been driven by the vision of the President,” said Galvin.

The education industry deals with an enormous amount of data; hence this is where AI plays a crucial role, as it can help us to develop several beneficial programmes and applications to serve both students and teachers in achieving distance learning.

The Covid-19 pandemic has given us time to rethink the education sector. While many are struggling to get to grips with this shift to online learning, it may inspire a variety of innovations and adjustments for students and teachers. The emphasis on AI has become more prominent, as people will still be required to follow social distancing when the pandemic is over.

The opportunities for AI to support our education are so broad that Microsoft recently commissioned research to understand where they can help. The Study covered 509 higher education institutes in the US and the results showed 99.4% believe AI would be instrumental, with 15% calling it a “game-changer”. Yet, it might be safe to say that most institutes still lack a formal strategy or measure to place AI in their education systems.

The way Irish Universities and colleges are going to operate and adapt will face fundamental change over the next few years. “Most of the near term adaptation that is going to be involved is about hard work of people getting their material online and learning how to adapt their teaching style so that they can work remotely,” said Prof. Barry Smyth of the UCD School of Computer Sciences.

When it comes to the impact of AI on education, there are a number of projects that involve monitoring student progress during the year. Looking at how they interact with the online learning environment and patterns of activities, might indicate at an early point in the year whether a student is struggling with the content.

“Projects like these will help instructors, demonstrators or teachers, to make contact with a student and try to support at an early stage, resulting in the better outcome,” said Smyth.

Some of the significant challenges in online education at the moment are examinations and assessments. Over the past few years, there has been a push towards online assessments, however, due to the current circumstances, a lot of modules that had scheduled traditional assessments have been forced to move online with little preparation.

“My course was fully continuous assessment, so I have direct experience in this,” said Smyth.

“A lot of students were answering traditional exam scripts over zoom, and then you have all the challenges to try and figure out: Are they behaving responsibly, do they have notes underneath the desk that go unseen?” added Smyth. “So I know there have been some companies exploring techniques to try and automatically detect if a student is acting in a way that might be inconsistent with the way they should act in an exam”.

Data collection vs need for privacy

With all these techniques being tested, AI brings mixed emotions and opinions when referenced in the context of privacy.

The vast majority of AI systems are machine-learning systems, which work by trying to teach themselves how to solve problems. To conduct these experiments, companies require data. When we are talking about educational applications, the data that might be used include educational records. According to Smyth, there are substantial ethical and privacy issues that need to be considered.

“I think the good news is that universities like UCD are very conscious of this and first and foremost it’s the privacy of staff and students that are considered and, as far as I know, none of these technologies are being deployed in any way at the moment,” said Smyth.

Other areas might be less sensitive, for example, helping students select courses in which they might be interested. Currently, students have tons of options when it comes to choosing a course or a particular module as a part of that course. This can be an area where systems like “recommenders” can play a vital role.

If these systems can learn about the interest of the students or pay attention to the other courses that students have opted for in the past, then these systems would be able to identify those subjects that might interest a student. These types of systems can be quite beneficial. A student who tends to follow the crowd can potentially find novel education paths available to them.

Ultimately, AI can provide intelligence tools that will be available to save teachers time doing tasks like grading papers, so that they can spend more time with students. The strengths of AI currently is not that it will replace teachers, but more that AI will provide much needed support to overworked teachers.

As the conventional learning process is disrupted by orders of restricted movement, where educators and students are bound to work from home, it gives everyone a chance to see what AI can add to encourage the healthy growth of the education sector.

Kabir Kalia – Reporter

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