Artificial Intelligence is already having a profound effect on the world around us. As cloud-based computing and Big Data analytics bring unprecedented convenience to our daily lives and countless industries, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how machines can help in the field of education in years to come, considering that revenues from the AI software market is projected to reach almost $120 billion by 2025.
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In its current form, Higher Education suffers from an exclusivity complex in many developed countries worldwide. While it’s possible to anyone to attend university in the UK, the £9,250 per year cost of tuition fees has left students feeling alienated. Elsewhere, universities can feel wholly inaccessible for young adults in nations with a weaker transport infrastructure.
As part of this article, I spoke to the head of one of very few universities that aim at utilising AI to its fullest potential in education.
Chatbots and customised courses
Further developments in Artificial Intelligence may soon change Higher Education forever. Already AI is beginning to make its presence felt on campus, with universities like Staffordshire introducing Beacon, a chatbot designed to act as a 24-hour digital assistant for students. However, Deakin University in Australia has recently set a new standard, using IBM’s Watson AI technology to pre-empt over 1,600 student questions in real-time surrounding the topics of student life, admissions, local directions, financial aid and much more.
While chatbots don’t sound like they’re the kind of technology to swoop in and make university more inclusive for more disadvantaged students, the money institutions will save utilising AI to deal with queries instead of piling workloads on tutors could play a role in making HE more affordable.
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Chatbots point to an exponentially larger role to be played by AI. When University 20.35 was developed, the emphasis was firmly on utilising Artificial Intelligence to provide bespoke Higher Education programs to thousands of remote learners. Speaking about this, Dmitry Peskov, head of the university explained: “When we started dealing with this challenge, we saw that educational programs in traditional universities and the teaching methods applied therein didn’t correspond to the needs of either private companies or the state. Everything is changing very quickly, new specialisations are appearing, and the requirements for traditional ones are constantly expanding. We realised that we need a flexible, digital data-driven educational platform where everything would be personalised as much as possible through the use of AI.”
Although it seems highly ambitious, the notion of optimising the personal experience of each student through advanced technology isn’t necessarily new. Writing for EdTech, Dave Doucette acknowledged that delivering a ‘highly individualised experience’ would be every university’s top priority if funding was unlimited.
AI has the potential to bridge the gap between students and their course material - offering personalised tutoring as well as video captioning as a means of making course content more accessible.
Mass remote learning leveraged by AI
Today we’re used to favouring courses that have lower student-to-tutor ratios, because they’ll be able to offer the best level of personal support, right? “University 20.35 is not a university in the traditional sense. We don’t have classrooms, permanent staff, lecturers, rectors and deans - and we don’t teach students based on programs that are available at other universities. It is a digital platform driven by artificial intelligence – the Pushkin AI. In fact, we are an experimental training ground, where advanced EdTech and techniques are being developed that will be commonplace not just tomorrow, but ‘the day after tomorrow’ – in the year 2035. Hence the name of the University,” explains Peskov.
What does this mean for the HE classrooms and lecture halls of the future? If AI delivers on the promise it’s continually showing, learning will transition into the realm of the remote. Students will be able to study at home, complete assignments that a combination of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning has determined is suitable for them, before submitting their work for the technology to automatically assess.
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So does this mean that we’ll no longer be looking out for in-house courses with a student-to-tutor ratio of under 25 in the future? Peskov believes so: “We initially wanted to build a scalable digital platform through the use of AI. Therefore, a potentially unlimited number of participants will be able to get enrolled in the future at the university. But, practically, we plan that by 2020 up to 100,000 people will be connected to our system.”
The Higher Education revolution
University life is ever-changing. The disruptive power of the internet enabled students to learn in just about any location - whether it was through the use of library computers, on laptops at home, or on their mobile phones while travelling to take a morning exam.
Artificial Intelligence enables a logical evolution to take place here, where entire courses can take place from home, with comfort and suitable scalability. Does University 20.35 represent the start of a much wider movement? Dmitry thinks so: “This is a revolution. The technology groups that are underlying this revolution can be applied in completely different fields: from how we teach children at the preschool age to the mass retraining of older generations. They can be used to fundamentally change the models of universities. They can be used for online courses, for working professions.
We want to make sure that people in the new digital economy are in demand and can easily adapt to any changes and requirements. And this can only be done with the help of AI and a complete revision of existing educational models.”
To Sum Up
Educational institutions have existed in a relatively familiar form throughout the centuries now. As it bids to adapt to the new millennium’s rapid advancements in computing and technology, universities of today can still be found guilty of commanding levels of tuition fees that can fly in the face of inclusivity.
The development of Artificial Intelligence has now offered the world a chance to revolutionise the way students access Higher Education - with affordable home learning and bespoke course content to suit each pupil’s needs. The notion of a ‘revolution’ may cause pre-existing institutions to baulk - but if it’s a revolution that brings greater inclusivity, then it’s a revolution worth doing.