Why you should care
This could be the Hail Mary our failing classrooms need.
Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and technological advances — they’ve woefully lagged behind. There are, of course, exceptions. Follow OZY’s special series High School, Disrupted to find out about the global leaders, cutting-edge trends and big ideas reimagining secondary education — for the better.
From Siri handling our schedules to smart cars driving themselves, artificial intelligence (AI) has turned our world upside down — except in education. Computers are trading on the stock markets for us, but our schools might as well be stuck in the 12th century. Children sit in the same orderly rows they have for centuries, learning Euclidean geometry while being bored to tears. Sure, modern students are glued to iPads, but technology hasn’t done much to boost their learning — at least not yet. The promise of AI might just be the long-awaited breakthrough that will change the way we all learn.
Just ask Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist who claims to predict everything from how much money your children will make to how long they will live. She can forecast grades, even pointing to which questions they’ll get wrong on a final exam. No, she’s not wielding a crystal ball; instead, she has AI-powered software to study your child’s learning habits and social interactions through a combination of cognitive modeling and machine learning. Why all the Big Brother snooping? “Essentially, we’re talking about the same sorts of systems that beat the best poker players in the world … being repurposed to understand high school students,” says Ming, explaining how they will help today’s pupils build better futures. From AI systems that warn when and where a student will struggle to intelligent personalized tutors, here’s a glimpse of education’s future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How can AI help jump-start high school education?
Ming: It’s a big ambition. Can we flip the model in which tech traditionally has been this big, cumbersome thing, and instead make it an integrated part of education? People are nowadays familiar with MOOCs [massive open online courses] and the kind of online lectures that are available. But what’s most exciting is the power of AI and design-centered learning. Say I’ve got 30 kids in a classroom and an AI that can help me monitor how each of them is growing while they’re naturally learning. I don’t have to wait to do a quiz or an exam; I can get insights about how the child is developing every day and make recommendations to parents and teachers based on that information.
There are people researching emotion-expression recognition and real-time video to see just when a teacher should intervene on someone who’s working on a design project. This is very different to what most people think of when it comes to education technology. Instead, this is technology that turns a home or a classroom into a cutting-edge learning experience. It’s less about understanding the course material and more about mentally growing the person — less about the tools and more about the craftsman. That really pegs AI with natural intelligence, and puts them together in a way that has been shown to make a significant difference and will eventually break the mold of our old approach to education technology.
Why hasn’t technology flourished in classrooms yet?
Ming: Educational technology has really struggled. Many incredibly insightful projects that were developed and proven in labs have not succeeded, including AI-powered cognitive tutors that actually understand the mistakes [students] are making and can offer direct supervision. It turns out the wrong way of [integrating AI] is sitting a bunch of kids in front of a computer for hours, marginalizing the teachers. Education is probably ground zero for how the best-intentioned technologies can still really struggle to make a difference. In fact, research indicates that most educational technology actually makes inequality worse, rather than better.
What are the dangers of putting AI in schools?
Ming: We don’t want just a plug-in education. A lot of edtech uses words like personalization, but the truth is that it does plug every student into a mold, and you just follow a track. It largely assumes that every student is the same. What about the edge cases, the kids that are different? There’s always a fear that you’re going to lose a real human connection and the unique story of each child.
Also, is machine learning biased? Most notoriously, for example, Google’s face recognition labeled Black faces as gorillas, and Facebook labeled Auschwitz as a playground. [AI] is just like a person — it depends on how you raise it. There’s a degree to which these systems have been able to deal with only the most common cases: the average kid. But there are no average kids. One of the things AI must focus on is understanding our differences as much as understanding our similarities. No one has truly solved that problem. But if you don’t acknowledge it, then no amount of AI is going to dig you out of that hole.
What can AI do for high schools that has yet to be dreamed up and put into motion?
Ming: High school is probably most notable for being a transition period, moving from being a kid to being an adult. It’s a bit of a trial by fire. What AI can do in a high school context is … finally focus on the core of any high school experience — coming to understand your emotions and your relationship to your world; coming to understand metacognition, your own thought processes; and being able to self-assess and structure your plans. [High school] is a transition between you as a kid in isolation and you as an adult in the world. That doesn’t sound like education, but that turns out to be the entire game.
I’m excited about technology that will focus less on rote memorization and more on how [high schoolers] can find their sense of purpose. I want to leverage AI to change teenagers’ brains. AI can craft lessons that are specifically designed for that student to build the motivation, the creativity and the metacognition that’s going to serve them through their lives.