Donald Norman said that the aim off all good technology is to be invisible. The future of online learning is that it will be smart and that these smarts will sort of disappear. In learning, this is particularly important, as cognitive issue such as attention, cognitive overload, cognitive effort, feedback and practice really do matter. It is my contention that real efficiencies in learning can only come through AI. You make people smarter by using smart tech. That’s why I wrote ‘AI for Learning’, a book about how the invisible hand of AI will transform why we learn, what we learn and how we learn.
AI is everywhere
AI is everywhere. It is in every smartphone, tablet and laptop. Even in the hardware it optimises battery use and much of the AI functionality is built into hardware such as the Apple Neural Engine (ANE) or its custom-designed GPUs, similarly for Google and others. On the front-end it deals with face or fingerprint identity, is the fundamental technology behind Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa. The cameras and photos produced by your smartphone are laden with AI processing. Before you see a picture, AI has worked its magic. Manipulate that image with filters and image software and AI is the workhorse. More obvious features such as app selection, keyboard prediction, language translation, on-device dictation, health features. Some devices now have lidar, so know if you’ve put the device down, are about to lift it, are moving around, so that the device itself is aware of where it is and what it is being used for in the environment – all using AI.
Do almost anything online and it will be mediated by AI. Email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Google Scholar, Maps, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon…. All interceded by AI. AI is also in online learning. Almost all informal online learning on Google, YouTube and other sources of learning are searched for, mediated by AI. Even in formal learning AI is now being used in real organisations to engage learners, support learners, interface through voice, create content, adapt content, personalise and assess learners. This is the core message in my new book ‘AI for Learning’ where I run through these options, with real examples, to signpost towards this new world of online learning.
Yet you are unlikely to be aware of AI’s ubiquity. It is in there, filtering out spam, stopping dick-pics, porn and hate speech, compressing and decompressing files, selecting things for you so that you are not simply washed over by a tsunami of information. Like the bottom of an iceberg, it now keeps the visible front of the internet afloat.
AI is the new UI
Although there’s lots of talk about UX design, AI is the new UI. It has given us voice in Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa. This is a great example of AI learning and therefore improving with use. My Alexa has gone from me supressing my Scottish accent to me not having to change my diction at all. Beyond voice we have the entire user interface tiled as AI is he intermediate that sits between you and the service. It is your personal butler. In Amazon, it tiles books and goods, in Netflix Box, movies and Box Sets, in learning what is right for you at that precise moment, a decision informed by who you are, what you’ve done so far and the aggregated data from all the others who have been in this situation. Like your satnav, if you go off course, take a wrong turn, it will guide you back on course and to your destination. Beyond this there are hopes of frictionless interfaces between mind and machine that allow the mind to control things, and possible, at some point, to accelerate learning. All of these interfaces, actual and possible are discussed in the book.
AI – a learning example
A good example of the invisible hand of AI is Duolingo (I write about its relevance to learning here). Luis von Ahn is the brains, driver and innovator behind Duolingo. From Guatemala, he’s a mathematician and computer scientist on a mission to keep language learning free. With a value north of $1.5 billion and x50 more users than their nearest competitor and x5 the revenues, its sort of speaks for itself. Its personalization makes it habitual, the daily tasks and streaks are achievable and the behavioural science behind the formation of habit is solid. AI also provides the adaptive delivery of learning chunks. In fact AI drives its entire pedagogy, as it knows what you’ve learnt and, importantly, if you’ve been absent, what you’ve forgotten. Algorithmic personalisation may have more to do with rectifying forgetting than learning. AI also drives engagement, through notifications, algorithmically driven they decide what to say and when to say it. They notify you regularly, but not too much, the most effective notification is the ‘final warning’. If they feel you have dropped off, a timely message, making you feel slightly guilty. The user experience is simple, clean, plenty of white space, consistent palette, no teacher face or teacher avatar, simple progress bar at top of screen. The learning experience has open input for full phrases and sentences, allows people to type what they hear, remediation when you fail, sentence as audio when you get it right and they’re not scared of repetition, single day streaks, spaced practice. They work hard at this. I’ve seen it improve year after year. Importantly, learning wants to be free, and they have achieved this. They are all zealots for free education, well largely, as only 3% of users pay the subscription – learning wants to be free. Duolingo is just one of many examples of AI in learning in the book.
To get a feel for how powerful recent advances in AI can be, look at GTP-3, a text generator which points towards the production of online content. It has produced text, even poetry that humans cannot distinguish from real human output. Think about how fundamental AI has become in the hardware and software in your smartphones and online in general.
It is important to focus on benefits of AI in learning. We are at the start of an era when education will be smart, scalable, sophisticated and free. Combined with 5G, possibly delivered anywhere on the planet via Starlink, with low latency and no blind spots, we can start to see a future where personalized education and training is free, translated into multiple languages, to allow knowledge and skills to be a global good.
Invisible interfaces, spam filters, porn filters, hate speech filters, faster delivery, optimised battery life, less latency, voice, improvements in picture quality, better video, personalisation, subtitling, accessibility features, translations, awareness in 3D space, recommendations – all of this is here on your smartphone and there’s more to come.
Yet what used to be called the ‘killer application’ is only just arriving – accelerated learning. AI give us frictionless interfaces with voice, IOT awareness, non-invasive and even non-invasive cognitive devices. AI gives us personalised learning through adaption (entire degrees now being delivered), instant feedback, support and scaffolding in learning. AI will also create content and deliver assessment. AI changes everything in learning.
AI is already showing significant signs of using smart tech to make you smarter. This is exactly what I’ve written about in my book ‘AI for learning’.
Book: ‘AI for learning’
AI for learning’. This is the first general book about how AI can be used for learning across all types of organisations, schools, Universities and workplaces. It is not a technical book on AI, although it tries to explain what it is in non-technical terms and dispels some of the myths.It is written for the many people who teach, lecture, instruct or train, also those involved in the administration, delivery, even policy around online learning, also the merely curious. It is essentially a practical book about using AI for learning, with real examples of real teaching and learning in real organizations with real learners.
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