The Promise, Peril, and Possibility of Data, Analytics, and AI in Higher Education (3 of 7): Student Learning

This is the third installment of a seven-part exploration of data, analytics, and AI in higher education. In the first article, I set the groundwork for the series. I introduced the framework from which I intended to write, identifying what I consider to be six distinct aspects of data and AI’s influence in higher education. It simply follows the course of a learner’s relationship with a learning community. As such, the prior article looked at the pre-enrollment relationship, considering how data and AI are changing and will continue to change the way in which learners find, select, and build a relationship with a learning community (whether it be a formal college/University, informal learning, open learning resources or communities, people and experiences that foster learner, or a combination of these). Now, in this third article, I focus my attention upon how data, analytics, and AI will continue to influence the actual learning experience.

I have not intention of providing an exhaustive exploration of the topic. Of course, that would require countless volumes. Instead, what I offer at this point are a couple main observation about the challenges and opportunities that come when we venture into questions about how data, analytics, and/or AI might influence the learning experience.

The Adaptive Learning Revolution Will Really Be a Revolution

For those who still largely conceptualize the bones of the college learning experience as a collection of classes that culminate in the issuing of a credential, the world of data and analytics gives us even more opportunity to reconsider that construct. 

“Learning analytics” is a phrase that we often use in reference to all the data that we can collect and analyze to determine the extent to which students are learning, or the extent to which they exhibit behaviors that someone deems important for student success. Related to this, “adaptive learning” is a system that uses these data points to adjust the learning or learner experience with the hope of some improved outcome. On the K-12 level, we see rudimentary examples with software like Aleks Math or Dreambox. The software includes a hierarchy of levels of mastery. It introduces learners to content, challenges, and lessons; and the learner interacts with this content. All along, the learner’s performance is being assessed, and the software is adjusting accordingly. Each person is taken on a slightly (or sometimes significantly) different learning journey based upon prior knowledge and performance while using the software.

Most of the examples that are prominent today are early experiments with adaptive learning, but the truly interesting stuff is still on its way. While some critique such software as too mechanistic or representative of a simple and behaviorist approach to learning and mastery, that will change. It is already beginning to change. I commend the ingenuity and creativity of early developers of adaptive learning software for math and language acquisition, for example, but most of the work at this point lacks depth. It has yet to dip into the incredible pool of research and insight that now exists about the nature of learning. The companies and learning communities that demonstrate the forethought and wisdom to soak their adaptive learning software into this larger body of knowledge may well end up being some of the most powerful influencers of learning in the 21st and 22nd century.

You might recall the buzz when Thomas Frey made the prediction that the largest Internet company of 2030 will be an online school. I’ll build on his idea to say that it will be a organization that taps into the combined power of AI and the best of learning science research. It will boast of performance increases and learning outcomes that make some dominant teaching practices look like the tools of prehistoric cavemen.

In this new and emerging learning context, we are not talking about a collection of classes that lead to a credential. We are looking at constantly monitored and documented ebbs and flows in learning. We are considering measurements of mastery with regard to discrete skills and knowledge, the nuanced changes in learner motivation, mindset, traits, and disposition as well. As the research develops, we will also see far more complex calculations that look at patterns of thinking and behavior that are predictive of success or failure in various life, work, and real world contexts. Not only that, these new contexts will make massive strides in providing greater insight about knowledge transfer challenges, the extent to which someone’s learning in a classroom or on a computer adequately transfers to various real-world or novel contexts.

Similarly, measurement of learning will not just be about a moment in time. These emerging technologies will make it possible to monitor what is retained, lost, refined, or re-purposed over years or decades. As such, the monitoring of learning for someone like a surgeon will not stop when the MD is earned (if the construct of an MD persists into the 22nd century). Monitoring of learning and performance will continue and be tracked throughout one’s career.

There is much caution when it comes to such measurements. They are often crude and disregard important nuances and factors. Measurements become values-laden clubs that beat people and communities into submission. Over time, they become so accepted and commonplace that many think you are a social deviant to question their propriety.

Education and learning is rarely just about outcomes. As I so often write, education is always values-laden, which is the source of most great debates in the past and present when it comes to the what, why, and how of education in different contexts. Education isn’t just about the future as well. This AI future that I am describing is most likely inevitable, but we are still wise to not forget the significance of the hidden curriculum. We are wise to consider how these new technology-driven learning contexts shape how we think and our sense of humanity. We are wise to discuss and consider the values-laden nature of each new iteration. The most progressive transhumanists among us might dismiss these warnings as nostalgic hogwash. I do not. I hope that many who read this do not consider it hogwash, especially those who will help bring about the AI in education revolution.

Instructor Resistance 

In such a future, holding on to sentimentality will not be a successful resistance. We must think deeply about what it means to use, live, and teach in a world of big data and artificial intelligence. What do teachers do best? Or, what do we want to be provided by other humans instead of from technology, even if empirical data might suggest that the technology achieves the same or a better result?

Clayton Christiansen’s theory of disruptive innovation suggests that innovations often take root by serving a population largely overlooked, under-served, or even disregarded by others; and they do so with what might initially be an inferior product. Over time, the product improves and gradually captures a larger market until it has the potential to disrupt or displace what was happening before. This is already occurrring when it comes to data-enhanced instruction and learning analytics software. These are supplements to traditional teachers. They are also being used as replacements. As the outcomes of these substitutes or replacements increase, a growing number of people will choose to skip the traditional teacher and classroom. We can lament the loss. We can grieve for what this means about the deeply human and personal aspect of education. It will still happen.

Research from the psychology of attention is being purposed to track facial expressions, heart rate, and more. These too will eventually be part of the data set used in adaptive learning software. Smart watches and health trackers are getting more sophisticated every year. All of these lead to data points that will allow for increasingly nuanced and sophisticated learning analytic data sets. Are there problems and concerns with all of this? Absolutely. Yet this is also an indication of what is possible with AI and learning analytics. These systems will eventually capture psychological nuances and social cues that a single teacher cannot possibly notice and take into account when teaching a group of 50 in a traditional classroom. 

This doesn’t mean that people will become obsolete in learning of the future. However, it does challenge us to reconsider roles. In a recent interview with Stephen Downes, he noted that many of these musings about AI are much further in the future than some suspect, and that the most promising present possibilities reside with open networks of learning, new technology-enhanced connections and communities among people. It is amid these connections and among these communities that we can see some of the greatest strides in the more immediate future. We can see support for his position in the rapid adoption of social media, open learning communities, and other such networking over the past couple decades. Perhaps it is within these connections and communities that we can make greater sense of the roles best played by people and the extent to which AI and adaptive learning might be integrated. A blend of these two is what we already see emerging, and I see no evidence of that slowing. What happens in the long-term is yet to be seen. 

The Future of Learning

I have no doubt that AI and adaptive learning will bring about some of the more significant changes to how people learn over the upcoming decades. Tbe algorithms will develop and evolve to draw upon increasingly complex data sets. Incredibly consequential errors will be made along the way. Tension will grow and persist regarding the role of AI alongside the role of human interaction in learning. This is the future of learning in the rest of the 21st century.

Artificial Intelligence, the Future of Work, and Implications for Education

Artificial intelligence is changing work, and it has implications for education as well. About a decade ago, if you attended any education keynote, you would often find the speaker reassuring people who technology will not replace teachers. However, teachers with technology will replace teachers without, they would reassure us. This was an attempt to assert a personal and collective set of convictions about the human-centered nature of teaching and learning. This is why, even if we gathered definitive research to show that students can learn math and apply what they learn better through computer-aided instruction with a room of fifty other students and only one teacher/guide, many would outright reject the research.

This opposition comes from many places. Many teachers think of themselves as more than people who help students meet standards. They have days of conflict resolution, encouraging, caring and showing compassion, mentoring, coaching, instructing, protecting, personalizing, and so much more. For many, suggesting that a computer or artificially intelligent appliance could  do what they do  would be akin to saying that there is research to show that robots can raise children as well as human parents. It is not just about the outcomes. There is something hard to measure but easy to value in this conversation.

At the same time, that does not mean that education, the workplace, and society will not be eventually transformed by the growth and development of artificial intelligence and the many associated technologies. The robot workforce is not just a science fiction dream. It is already a reality in some places, and it will continue to expand into many areas. There will be rapid changes in some domains, but setbacks and tragedies will also delay (but not stop) its application in other areas of work and life.

This will be both an ethical and legal battleground. The policies and laws in place will be challenged, but those striving to hold back the robotic and artificially intelligent workforce will ultimately fail. People might celebrate short-term wins, but the promise of what these technologies can do in healthcare and other parts of life will lead to the majority embracing and even celebrating these advancements, even as some are losing their jobs.

What are the implications for education? I offer five things that are especially important for us to consider.

1. Study the future of work.

Few of us are devoting time and attention to the emerging nature of work in this increasingly and emergent technological world.We must abandon the outdated skepticism that this is just science fiction. These are real developments, and while schooling is about more than preparation for work, preparing people for the jobs the future remains important. I am not suggesting an immediate change of curriculum or anything of the sort. I am simply arguing that we are wise to take more time to better understand the important debates and research in this area.

2. Teach the Debate

There are important ethical considerations in this, and we are better off if more people are grappling with them. Cyborg technology is already a part of life today, and it will become even more commonplace not only in healthcare but in the workplace and popular culture. It brings with it affordances and limitations, and equipping people to be informed citizens and humans involves better preparing ourselves and others in these areas. We can and need to make decisions about how all of this unfolds, and being informed is a good place to start.

For example, in March of 2017, Elon Musk started a new company called Neuralink that conducts medical research intended to create connections between the brain and computers, allowing a synergistic interaction between the two. Over the years, Musk has been open about his concerns that artificially intelligent beings will exceed human capacities so much that they will make us seem like a pet compared to them. Musk believes that enhancing human capabilities through technology is a means of avoiding that undesirable future. Whether you agree or disagree with Musk, these are important considerations for us to consider, even if we do not believe in the risk of a full-blow Matrix or Terminator future.

Even on the more mundane level, it is important to help people make sense of the benefits, limitations, and possibilities for life in a connected age. How do we help people become analytical and wise in their thoughts, actions, and decisions in these areas?

3. Human / Technology Interaction

Many people argue that all the technology in school is not showing much of a difference in student learning. When you dig into the research and add more nuanced questions, that is a misleading claim. However, there is another element to all of this. We do not just use technology in education because it produces better learning outcomes. We also do so because this is technology that is increasingly commonplace in the contemporary world. We do not teach students to use fountain pens today. We do not require students to use personal slate board in many classes (although they are a brilliant innovation that still find use in some classes and different parts of the world).

We find ourselves in a transition period where people are beginning to wonder about the future of handwriting (I have another article on that debate). We saw the calculator debate and still do in some places. We even find a few people who insist that students should hand write the first drafts of their papers instead of using a word processor. These are just small and simple examples of the more complex considerations at work today.

Most jobs today call for humans to connect to and use technology to accomplish the work. That is the future as well. It is just that the connections and use will become increasingly complex. If we can help people become more literate about the nature of that connection, we will be doing them a great service. This is why I am increasingly convinced that basic computer programming at some point is a useful way of helping people develop at least a basic literacy about the programmed world around them.

4. Life and Not Just Work

Human life is about more than work and productivity. The value of a human life is not measured by that person’s demand in the workforce. I believe that we are wise to reinforce and celebrate this message. We can also strive to create deeply human and compassionate communities where people learn and connect.

5. Preparing Leaders for this Field

It is time to start encouraging more young people to think about how they might play a role in creating, curbing, and shaping this future of AI, work, and education. We will need more insightful, creative, grounded, ethical people to be involved in what happens.

AI and the world of robotics is changing life and work. It will continue to do so, and this has important implications for education. It is time for us to invest the necessary time and effort to think through these implications.