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Beyond Virtual Teaching Assistants: Broadening Our Understanding of Practical Uses for Artificial Intelligence in Higher Ed

By Matt Lisle, Director of Digital Learning Technologies, Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities

Matt Lisle, Director of Digital Learning Technologies, Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities

When discussing artificial intelligence and higher education, the Jill Watson” project from Georgia Tech is often cited as one of the premier examples of real-world AI applications in the education space. This groundbreaking project (led by Georgia Tech’s Ashok Goel) allows instructional teams to offload much of the question-answering that occurs in courses to a virtual teaching assistant (referred to as “Jill Watson” due to the project’s initial use of IBM’s Watson technology). This practical application of AI allows instructors to spend more time doing the things that humans do best, like facilitating one-on-one student support. However, the potential for practical applications of AI in higher education is not just limited to virtual teaching assistants. An entire world of possibilities exist, and in many cases, universities have already begun the important work of exploring these possibilities.

Mental Health Services

Woebot is a chatbot that offers users Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) via regular chat sessions with an AI agent. The technology comes from psychology experts in the Stanford School of Medicine and Andrew Ng, a globally recognized leader in AI. The tool is available to the public but is also offered as an enterprise solution for companies hoping to address high levels of anxiety among their employees.

One study examined the use of Woebot in a university community by providing Woebot to students, and comparing their outcomes with an information-only control group that was provided with an ebook, “Depression in College Students.” The study found that conversational agents “appear to be a feasible, engaging, and effective way to deliver CBT.” In addition, I would propose that a Woebot-like solution could potentially increase student engagement with campus mental health professionals via referrals.

LMS Assistants

Every now and then, the Google Photos “Assistant” feature on my phone suggests content from the past. It either automatically creates a video from past photos, designs a collage of photos, or reminds me of a noteworthy event that might have meaning for my personal life. I’m always pleased to take a moment to explore these memories, and I’m often surprised to find that I’d forgotten about photos that were taken of my friends and family.

"If implemented effectively, AI has the potential to open doors to countless educational opportunities that could improve the entire learning experience for a vast number of current and future students at universities around the world"

Our learning management systems (LMS) could and should offer something similar. The LMS should notice that I’m currently studying atomic binding, and remind me of last semester’s lesson on electrostatic and nuclear forces. It should recognize that I’m struggling during my current semester, and remind me of an outstanding paper that I wrote two years ago -- prompting me to once again read my teacher’s glowing comments. Too often, what has passed is in the past within a student’s LMS. An AI agent could help tie past learning to the present, which has the potential to open the door for lifelong learning opportunities.

AI for Teachers

The aforementioned examples of AI focus on the learner as the target audience. However, AI could also help teachers become more effective, as well. This topic was briefly discussed in a recent IMS Global panel, “Is Artificial Intelligence the Future of Education?” As in the case of “Jill Watson,” AI assistants can help teachers become more efficient by spending less time on administrative tasks. This allows more time to be spent on pedagogical interventions. However, AI can also prove useful during the instructional design process.

A virtual assistant could help teachers design assessments -- suggesting questions, distractors, and feedback. It could help write learning outcomes by recommending measurable verbs or aligning outcomes to assessments. One could even imagine an AI-powered course evaluation tool that measures quality and proposes curricular improvements.

Summary

“Jill Watson” is a groundbreaking technology that has inspired the entire educational ecosystem to think creatively about the future. However, we should not limit ourselves to virtual teachers or teaching assistants when considering the possibilities for AI use in higher education. If implemented effectively, AI has the potential to open doors to countless educational opportunities that could improve the entire learning experience for a vast number of current and future students at universities around the world.

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