The former education minister of one of the world’s smartest countries explains the role of AI in schools

South Korean students perform well on international tests. But like students all over the world, they are less and less engaged with school. They just don’t like it.

“You measure the activity of brain when they are in the the classroom and it’s not working at all, even compared to when they are sleeping,” says Ju Ho Lee, the former minister of education, science, and technology in South Korea who is now a professor at the KDI School of Public Policy and Management.

In South Korea and all over the world, countries are struggling to figure out how to reconfigure their education systems in a way that will both engage students and prepare them to thrive in a fast-changing economy. Lee says one solution may be to embrace a model called “high-tech, high-touch” learning, which he says is “the only direction for the future.”

The diagram below, which comes from Dale Johnson, adaptive program manager at Arizona State University, is based on Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, a widely accepted model that explains how learning evolves. First, you memorize information and comprehend it. Then you apply the information you’ve learned, analyze it, and evaluate it—think testing a hypothesis, or seeking independent evidence. Finally, you have learned enough to create your own ideas.

Screen Shot 2018-05-23 at 12.28.38 PM
(Dale Johnson/ASU)

Robots tend to be able to remember much more than we can. They can do calculations far beyond our wildest imagination, and retrieve information faster than our working memory will ever permit. So many believe that the skills we should focus education on are those that help students think critically, analyze effectively, work together, and create new ideas—the stuff at the top of the pyramid.

There’s a fairly important caveat, however: The science of learning (and common sense) dictates that we have to do the stuff at the bottom first. Kids cannot analyze a book’s ideas until they understand what they’ve read; they can’t do algebra without multiplication and division. Another issue is that kids are social learners, which means that they learn best from interactions, not from static screens. Teachers are the key element to effecting change in classrooms—more than iPads or laptops.

Enter the high-tech, high-touch approach. At the bottom of the pyramid, we can use artificial intelligence and adaptive technology—that is, technology that measures a student’s progress in learning, provides content based on that assessment, and then evaluates the student again—to help students get through some of the rote learning. That frees teachers up to engage with students on the higher-order learning. At least, that’s the hope.

Active and adaptive learning at Arizona State

Since 2011, Johnson has worked with the faculty at Arizona State to move from lecture-based learning to learning based on adaptive technology and active learning. Just as we have personalized maps and news feeds, Johnson argues that adaptive technology lets students work at their own pace while picking some of their own content. Class time, meanwhile, is reserved for doing in-person work with professors and other students. He describes active learning as “asking questions, not offering answers.”

Active learning requires a lot from professors. “When faculty lecture, they are in control: they have a destination in mind, and that’s the delivery of information,” Johnson says. “With active learning, the class is in control and the conversation can go in many directions. It’s a form of controlled chaos.” Needless to say, faculty are not always eager to make the change.

So far, the model has proven successful. More than 65,000 students at Arizona State have used adaptive courseware over the past seven years, and there are currently 12 courses using adaptive systems in some way. Helping teachers understand and use the technology has been key to getting uptake.

In the university’s former lecture-based Intro to Biology class, withdrawal rates hovered around 10%, and about 77% of the class got a C or above. Now the course has shifted to more active learning, using adaptive technology. Withdrawal rates in spring of 2016 were down to 5%, and 91% of the class scored a C or better.

The approach is never an easy sell, Johnson says. “We always face the question of ‘is the tech going to take my job?’ But this chart assures [faculty] it will not.”

The future of tech-supported learning

The mobile generation is ready for tech-supported learning. But teachers, according to Lee, are not.

“Teachers are not changing their teaching style,” Lee says. During his time as education minister in South Korea, he reformed how university admissions were done, pushing universities to require that kids have more than just good test scores. The goal was to get teachers in schools to focus more broadly on a breadth of skills, not just math and science. Since college admissions defines how teachers and parents prepare kids, he thought this might be the best lever.

In the end, Lee changed the admissions system, but not Korean teachers’ mindsets. “I really found out that even though I was empowered to do many things, changing teachers was the really hard thing to do.”

Lee is now heading up the Education Workforce Initiative, a global effort to look at how to radically overhaul teacher training in an effective way to make classrooms more dynamic, engaging, and inviting to students, and to empower teachers with the tools they need to create active, rather than passive, learning spaces. “It’s up to the international community to fill the void that national leaders cannot,” he says.

He will focus his high-tech, high-touch efforts in Vietnam, which has become a rising star in education circles for its rapid improvements. His belief is that Vietnam might be able to show the world what can be done. He struggled to radically reform teachers from inside—but he’s hoping maybe change from the outside will offer inspiration.

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