As part of my job, I get to visit quite a number of schools, advocating the exciting world of science and evangelising about the fantastic world of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Over the past decades, I have taught thousands of students and I’m also a parent to three magnifi­cent kids. So I tend to look at our educational system from a rather holistic perspective. When I ponder about the impact AI will have on our educational system, I think we have some exciting times ahead of us. 

In my humble opinion, we need to be bold and harness the power given to us by AI in education. We need to optimise Malta’s human capital by ensuring that our children get the most out of our educational system. We already have a shortage of professionals in various fields, so we need to encourage our children to keep on studying. We can’t afford to lose anyone!

Although a number of educational initiatives have been implemented to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning, we still need to do more in order for our students not to go through the same pipe­line, irrespective of their abilities, skills and predispositions.

The introduction of mixed abili­ty classes, together with differentiated teaching and learning, was a step in the right direction and led to a more personalised approach, but at the cost of increasing the workload of the educators.

Furthermore, even though many educators take their job very seriously and go out of their way to give our children the best education possible, given the time and means available to them, when lessons are compared to a gaming session I’m sure digital games win hands down. 

To tackle these issues, we need the help of an Education AI system that can personalise and optimise the educational system for all sorts of children automatically: from those who are struggling to those who are gifted.

It is a known fact that sometimes, teachers struggle because they have to deal with different class dynamics that arise from time to time. Because of this, the quality of the education given to the children may suffer. An Education AI system would act as a repository of best practices, thus ensuring that the educational experience of each and every child is consistently high.

This would guarantee that every child gets the best learning possible, automatically customised and adapted to the individual abilities of each child.

It also solves the problems mentioned earlier by giving each child personalised exercises to ensure that the task expected of him or her is achievable.

Furthermore, the system handholds weaker students and helps them to excel, while also challenging the gifted ones. Since the system handles the corrections in real time, the teacher would have more time to focus on other tasks, such as helping the weaker students or creating new resources.

The system would also provide contextual support to children even after school (when the support of the teacher is not available) thus helping them get through the most difficult questions on their own.

We are lucky to have the de­ployment of tablet computers in our schools. Children are already very confident with such systems, and since such an Education AI system runs on the tablets, we don’t need to invest in other resources but simply use the ones we already have.

An Education AI system… can personalise and optimise the educational system for all sorts of children automatically: from those who are struggling to those who are gifted

An open debate in this country is the right amount of homework that should be given to children. Is it five minutes. Thirty minutes? Two hours? In reality, there is no magic number. The Education AI system can tackle this by giving each child the right amount of work, personalised for each child, thus avoiding an overwhelming workload.

Moreover, this work, based on the responses provided, will match the knowledge and ability of the individual student. In contrast to standardised testing, this bottom-up and well-ordered learning environment will grow with the individual student’s performance and mastery of content, thus allowing for an adaptive, smoother and more pleasant educational experience.

On the other hand, the educators will not be loaded with additional burdens, since the system is highly autonomous. It will equip them with precious tools and statistics that will help them monitor their entire class and make them focus on those students who really need their help, thus allowing them to adopt a more formative approach to continuous assessment.

The system will also provide real-time feedback that both teachers and students can act upon, in order to improve future teaching and learning, which consequently strengthens the students’ self-regulating and monitoring strategies.

In essence, the Education AI system assists teachers manage the class and support all students more effectively, in an en­deavour to improve the overall learn­ing and assessment experience.

Even though our research lab at the University only has a prototype so far, the hundreds of students who tried the system through their tablets were super-excited, probably because it spoke the same technological language they understand. Most of them begged us to keep on using it after the trials.

What surprised us most were the preliminary results we obtained. After using the system once, most of the students showed an improvement when compared to the control group (who did not use the system).

Surprisingly, the weaker students benefitted the most from this approach, with an average improvement of 10 per cent in their grades.

These results are not conclusive and should be taken with a pinch of salt, though we plan further longitudinal studies.

However, they are very encouraging and clearly show that we are definitely going in the right direction.

Considering we live in a country where the only resource is human capital, we believe that the Education AI system will help our country produce a future generation of highly skilled professionals ready to face the challenges of today and build the world of tomorrow.

Prof. Alexiei Dingli is a professor of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and head of the Department of AI at the University of Malta. He has been conducting research and working in the field of AI for the past two decades. His work was rated world class by international experts and has won various prizes, including the Semantic Web Challenge, the first prize by the European Space Agency, the e-Excellence Gold Seal award, the first prize in the Malta Innovation Awards and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) award for Creativity, among others. He has published seve­ral peer reviewed papers and books in the field. He is also involved in various AI projects with local and international organisations. The government has appointed him on the Malta.AI task-force aimed at making Malta one of the world’s top AI countries.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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