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NEW CENTURY

A British start-up will put AI into 700 schools in Belgium

By Jenny Anderson

The future of classrooms is coming to Flanders.

Today, the Flanders region of Belgium signed a deal with Century Tech, a British AI platform for schools and universities that uses learning science, neuroscience, and data to personalize learning for kids. The technology will be rolled out to all 700 regionally funded Flemish schools over the next five years.

The deal is the first time a government will apply AI in such a large number of classrooms, Century says. It is in negotiations with other governments.

The goal is to move from a one-size-fits-all model of education where teachers try, but often struggle, to teach to varying levels in the classroom, to one in which an AI platform helps tailor lessons to each individual students. That includes identifying the areas students know or don’t know, where they feel confident or shaky, how they feel about different kinds of work (which they report to the system with emojis, of course), and even how long it takes a student to store information in their long-term memory. It’s a continual diagnostic on a child’s progress, with the machine trying to learn how the child learns, and adapt lessons and feedback accordingly.

While it seems the goal may be to automate teachers out of existence, Priya Lakhani, Century’s founder, says it is exactly the opposite. The company was founded to free up teachers from mindless tasks—74% of teachers are considering quitting in three years, with the majority of them saying it’s because of admin such as marking grades. By freeing up the teacher from these tasks, they can focus more on helping kids who need it, and devote more time to substantive class work. At the same time, kids interact with lessons that are more tailored to their ability and learning style.

“The most important person in the classroom is the child, but the most powerful one is the teacher,” says Lakhani. 

Century was founded in 2015 and spent $7 million building its platform, which is being used in “hundreds” of schools, including Beacon Hill Academy in Birmingham, Passmores Academy in Essex, and a number of special education schools.

Schools upload their content into Century’s system and then the platform breaks it down into “nuggets” or micro-lessons. Kids take a quick assessment to see what they know. Then, the system can deliver lessons based on what needs to be worked on, and areas of weakness.

Lakhani says the average time the AI platform is used is 20 minutes a week in primary schools and 40 minutes a week in secondary schools. “I do not want C3PO teaching my child,” she says, to emphasize that the point is not to have kids spend more time in front of screens. Teachers report that the system frees up six hours a week, time which Lakhani says can be invested in the creative arts and physical education, which are often marginalized in favor of academics in service of students’ heavy testing burdens.

Unlike other adaptive learning technologies, which are rules-based (run on instructions that are manually entered by programmers, typically involving a series of if-then functions), Century uses AI, which learns and adapts its knowledge about the student through the data it collects every time it’s used.

Century also incorporates basic tenets of neuroscience and learning science to assess students’ focus and difficulty levels; the pace and best time for learning; how long it takes for information to move from short- to long-term memory; or how resilient a learner is. This analysis then feeds into machine-learning algorithms.

No personal data is stored about the children; just their interactions with the platform. Personal information is needed to log on, but it is not used by the AI.

“For decades, technologies like artificial intelligence have been disrupting and improving sectors across the world—with education remaining largely untouched,” says Lakhani.

Century is battling the inglorious past of failed EdTech in classrooms. While governments spend billions on everything from laptops to tablets, the OECD has found that this has no effect on learning.

Jim Knight, a former UK education minister, says Century’s deal in Belgium is exciting because the nature of the technology has improved so much. “We are going through phases, from a wave of hardware—laptops and whiteboards through to software to help kids pass tests—to software that is much more about helping individuals learn at their pace and give them the right amount of stretch,” he says, “which is a much more exciting development than the previous phase.”

Knight says that ministers will need reassurance that children’s data is protected, and that teachers will need confidence that algorithms can make sensible judgments about what kids need. “These are the same questions Century has been asking,” he adds.

One key concern for governments is dependence: if the AI works, they become dependent on one private company, whose key functions will be hard to monitor or even really understand.

As for why the Flemish are diving into tech? Because they believe their students deserve it, says Raymonda Verdyck, managing director of GO!, the government group that organizes education for Flanders. “Every GO! pupil is considered to be a unique person with specific interests, ambitions and talents,” she says. “GO! schools and institutions—1,000 in all—stand for equal and maximum chances of education and personal development for every individual.”