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AI and the future of learning: What we talked about at the world’s largest edtech event

To create solutions that benefit all, we need to take responsibility for our innovations

January 22, 2020

By Leila Toplic, Lead, Emerging Technologies, NetHope  

The 2020 Bett Conference brings together over 34,000 attendees, including more than 800 leading companies, and 103 EdTech startups from the education technology landscape. People from over 146 countries in the global education community come together to discuss the future of education and explore how technology and innovation can enable learners and educators to thrive.

On Bett’s opening day, NetHope’s Lead for Emerging Technologies, Leila Toplic, joined Microsoft Education leaders —Barbara Holzapfel (GM, Microsoft Education), Anthony Salcito (VP, Worldwide Education), and Daniel McDuff (Principal Researcher)—in a keynote entitled “Hybrid Intelligences: Amplifying the Human Potential.”

Here are the key takeaways from Leila’s talk:

As the pace of change accelerates, millions of youth are already behind.

While we live in a time of information abundance—more access to knowledge than any other time in human history—there is an alarming inequality due to the number of factors such as the lack of visibility and access to online learning resources for many youth, inadequate enabling environments (mentors, role models, learning spaces, co-working spaces), and a shortage of meaningful earning opportunities where youth live.

Today, 258 million of our children and youth are out of school and more than 64 million of youth are unemployed, and with youth unemployment continuing to rise. And, 145 million of working youth who do have jobs live in poverty.

Many of these young people have been affected by conflicts and displacement. Conflict-affected youth are not only a significant part of our society, but they also represent the needs and challenges that many more of our youth will face: how they access learning, what they learn, and how they connect learning to real world opportunities. They represent the shifts we need to make in education to enable every young person to thrive. By solving for the needs of the conflict-affected youth and learning from the solutions we create, I believe we can help all youth.

AI has the potential to be a game changer in how young people access and experience learning and how we connect learning to real world opportunities

Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the most promising tools we have to meet the needs of these youth.

In the keynote, I shared one example of how AI can be used to address the challenges out-of-school conflict-affected youth face. We’re developing a chatbot, called Hakeem, to address the issue of discovery and access to online learning resources.

Hakeem is a collaboration between NetHope, Norwegian Refugee Council, University College Dublin, Microsoft, and conflict-affected youth in Lebanon.

We chose to use AI because it can help us do a number of things better. For example, it can help us extend the reach and augment the capacity of humanitarian workers and local educators so we can provide an equal support to all youth (e.g., young girls, youth living in remote areas). Youth can discover and access a portfolio of relevant learning content online, such as engineering, business, languages, art, or social sciences, anywhere and anytime, at their own pace.

Also, chatbots like Hakeem can provide an experience that is interactive and engaging - where youth can discover courses through conversation (they’re already used to chatting in Skype, WhatsApp, FB). Just like a learning companion, Hakeem can notify youth when new courses are available that match their interests and encourage them to re-engage in learning, increasing the likelihood of becoming lifelong learners.

AI solutions need to be designed to amplify the human potential and augment our efforts, not to replace us.

As a former teacher, I see AI solutions like Hakeem not as a replacement for educators, but as a tool that can amplify educators’ efforts and augment their work in a number of ways. AI can help teachers be more productive, make better decisions, free up time so they can do more of the work that matters to them. For example, instead of spending time on time-consuming activities that machines can do (e.g., searching/organizing learning resources) teachers could use that time to focus on the individual needs of the learners that require creative and critical thinking.

To create solutions that benefit all, we need to take responsibility for our innovations

We’ve all heard about how things could go wrong with AI.

I believe that as designers, we must take responsibility for our innovations because technology is never neutral, it is always representative of our values and biases.

In the keynote, I talked about what responsible innovation looks like in practice based on my learnings from working on Hakeem and other solutions.

For a start, responsible, relevant innovation requires involvement of diverse stakeholders whose values need to be expressed and embodied in the solution. With Hakeem, that meant including the technologists, humanitarian & education specialists, and youth.In addition to inclusion of diverse set of stakeholders, some of the other characteristics of responsible innovation are:

  • Transparency— this includes understanding what is being built and why (e.g. what are the benefits, under what conditions is the innovation/feature ethically acceptable) and sharing with the end-user how each feature works.
  • Ability to anticipate possible consequences – this includes asking questions (e.g. about data collection) and examining the value trade-offs.
  • Responsive design – set up an iterative process that allows for debate, especially around conflicting values, and for changes to be made to the design based on feedback.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list - the point is to be intentional about creating solutions in a responsible way.

Use of AI is still nascent in the nonprofit sector and we’re eager to learn from other practical implementations. How are you using AI in education? What are you doing to ensure that solutions are built in a responsible and sustainable way?

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