«Artificial intelligence promises to offer different learning experiences depending on the needs of students»

 Foto: UOC/Elsa Velasco

Foto: UOC/Elsa Velasco

Elsa Velasco
Scott Fleming, executive vice president of the Strada Education Network


Higher education is changing rapidly, as is technology. With new needs and challenges emerging in the job market, teachers and universities are adapting so they can prepare their students to face them. Key in this transformation will be digital tools and technologies, which are still being developed and pose questions as to how they should be applied. The Next Generation By Design 2019 symposium, organized by the DXtera Institute, German Alliance for Education, EduCloud Alliance, Strada Education Network and the UOC, took place in May in Barcelona (Palau Macaya). The event brought together education industry leaders and practitioners from around the globe to discuss the main technological challenges arising in higher education.

Scott Fleming is executive vice president of the Strada Education Network, a non-profit organization from the USA that aims to strengthen bridges between higher education and employment through strategic philanthropy and research. As one of the symposium’s main speakers, Fleming shared his view on how technology can help universities improve their students’ training and therefore promote success in their careers.


What is the main challenge that higher education is facing right now?

The connection between education and the workforce. Most individuals are pursuing higher education because they want a better job or salary and education is a pathway to that. They want relevance. But, according to businesses, education is not delivering the skills that most employers seek.

Why is that happening?

Historically, higher education has not been focused on skills training, but rather has worked as a signalling activity to employers, focusing on liberal arts education. By that I mean a university degree signalled to employers that a person would be a good hire. That's not a bad thing – liberal arts are a good preparation for many jobs, including technically skilled jobs. But, increasingly, employers are looking for specific skills, so there is an opportunity for higher education to incorporate more skills training in its curriculum.

What can technology and digital tools bring to the table to improve education?

They give students more flexibility around their learning, by giving access to course materials wherever they live or work, providing a lot more data and information to learners and instructors, and giving more opportunities to interact with other students, even if they are not physically together.

How does technology change the educators’ work?

It gives much more visibility to what the student is doing. You can see how they deal with the course’s content, how they engage with other students, how their activity aligns with performance on assignments. There is much more information available to the instructor to allow them to know how best to teach the class and how to engage with their students.

How do these new digital tools work?

With the advent of cloud computing, most digital tools live in distributed or decentralized environments. Content and learning systems are all available at all times on the internet. Wherever you can access email or social media, you also have unprecedented access to your course materials.

What about artificial intelligence? How can it improve learning?

Artificial intelligence is still relatively new in education, but it opens up many possibilities. One of them is to identify which materials might be most effective for which students. Not every student learns the same way and artificial intelligence can help with that. In addition, it has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of administrative work for instructors, so that they can focus more on instruction itself. There are a lot of possibilities and we are just at the very edge of seeing what artificial intelligence can do to transform higher education.

Can you give us a particular example of one of those possibilities?

Several universities are involved in a current initiative that uses a chatbot that is able to respond to questions very effectively. One thing that artificial intelligence can do is anticipate what the most frequently asked questions will be and formulate responses to them. So, if I'm a student and have a question while travelling or out of contact with my instructor, or need the answer quickly, I can ask a chatbot that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In most cases, it can answer from 70% to 75% of the most frequently asked questions posed by learners. In that sense it has an immensely positive impact on student engagement. Artificial intelligence can also help identify more challenging situations where learners may not actually want to confide in a human counsellor, but they’ll ask a chatbot – the bot doesn’t judge anyone for the questions they ask. 

What are the main challenges to these technologies being applied?

One significant challenge is finding the right artificial intelligence application. When you do, you need to develop it or teach it what to do in certain circumstances, which requires time and resources. And because there are so many possibilities, focusing on the ones that are going to have the greatest impact can be difficult. This is one of the reasons data science has become so critical.

The other challenge is that there are new questions around ethics in artificial intelligence. Globally, software development and engineering is less diverse of a workforce than others, and this can be reflected in artificial intelligence if we do not take care to make sure that all appropriate viewpoints are represented.

How will artificial intelligence and digital tools transform education in the next ten years?

A lot of education will be the same. You will still have students learning from instructors who are specialists in a field of study. What will be different is that a lot of the interaction will be handled with artificial intelligence and instructors may not need to spend as much time teaching fundamentals, freeing them up to help guide more unstructured inquiry. In addition, the pace of learning will become much more personalized: artificial intelligence can provide a different learning experience depending on the needs or preferences of individual students.

How do you think this is going to improve the connection between education and the workforce?

It will make it easier to modify the curriculum and incorporate elements that will be meaningful for employers. If several people are on the same course working on similar assignments, you can change the assignment so that each of the students have an opportunity to learn something that is more relevant to their preferred career path without having to write a different assignment for each student. Technology can help enable differentiation for each student and, if you go to scale, in a large university like the UOC, with 55,000 or more degree-seeking students, being able to do that very flexibly is going to be a significant advantage.