Episode 4: IT IQ Series – AI will soon power students and schools’ growth. Why?

Summary: AI will not only prove essential as part of students’ learning experiences, but also play a major role in how efficiently Australia’s education sector grows.

Will artificial intelligence (AI) make students smarter? AI has already made its way onto the agenda of Australia’s education policymakers, who’ve acknowledged that time is of the essence if we’re to adopt AI in our classrooms. Unsurprisingly, the Australian education sector is being told to urgently adapt and ‘reconceive schooling’ to ensure that the future workforce is equipped to function in a world where AI plays a much greater role than even now.

That role will include powering the growth and expansion of education institutions themselves. Many institutions already adopt some form of cloud-based AI platform, most notably when automating basic processes. But AI in itself is a wide-ranging field, covering everything from bots (automated software-based robots) to machine learning and cognitive services like facial and language recognition.

Enhancing the learning experience

“We’ve been really encouraged at the extent to which the education industry, from primary all the way through tertiary education, have embraced AI and robotics,” says Mark Tigwell, an Azure technologist at Microsoft. “To no-one’s surprise, we’re seeing rapid uptake in the area of STEM learning where primary school students are building robots from robot kits and coding them to respond automatically to their surroundings. Technology is enhancing teaching and students are certainly being equipped with skills for the future.”

As one example, Tigwell points to growing demand for resources like Microsoft Imagine, a repository of tutorials and guides for coding, design, and building apps for the cloud. Imagine’s resources are inherently practical–directing students and teachers to think creatively and analyse situations–which, according to Tigwell, appeals to the direction which educators are taking towards STEM education.

“Theoretical resources may prove useful in later years, but that practical aspect piques the interest and passion of younger students, which is exactly what we need to raise STEM’s profile in our schools,” says Tigwell. “When you make AI and robotics into platforms for digital creativity, you’re not only attracting students but giving them essential skills for their future careers, whether they end up working in a STEM-centric field or not.”

AI’s impact, however, goes well beyond the syllabus. Some schools have already begun using the technology to monitor schoolyards for bullying, while emotion and speech recognition can also help teachers better engage with long-distance students.

“Being able to automatically recognise and trigger a response to emotional cues is incredibly valuable intelligence for teachers, whether you’re dealing with angry gestures in the playground or signs of boredom in your remote-learning students,” says Tigwell. “You’re not replacing the teacher or spoon-feeding the student, but you’re making their tasks that little bit less onerous to handle. And the effects, from averting schoolyard violence with automated alerts to studying better with speech-to-text transcription of classes, ultimately improve everyone’s learning experience in ways that even the best teachers can’t do at scale.”

“We currently have more than two dozen cognitive services in the Azure suite, but the myriad applications for them in learning environments alone are pushing us to go even further in development.”

Smarter schools for smarter students

Educators are also eyeing AI for another reason: it can make scaling up operations much, much easier. “AI can substantially reduce costs and improve the way we run our schools and universities,” says Tigwell. “Whether it’s monitoring the use of electricity to developing virtual assistants who can answer questions on the school website, you’re cutting out inefficiency at all levels of management.”

Automating administrative tasks also frees teachers’ time, letting them produce new content or research that yields substantial dividends in the long run. “There’s always a process that is causing pain in your daily workflow,” says Tigwell. “Let’s say, for example, you constantly receive the same simple questions from most of your students. A bot that automatically displays FAQs based on students’ questions can save huge amounts of time, and new tools like the Azure Bot Framework make doing so far less technical a process than previously.”

That, in turn, positions educational institutions for faster growth, both locally and overseas. Japan’s Hokkaido University, for example, transformed its e-learning platform with Azure by automating the process of transcribing, translating, captioning and encoding its lessons. The result was course preparation time being slashed from two weeks to two hours while attracting more students from outside Japan. And with Australia’s higher-education exports hitting record levels in 2016, similar AI-based models could help local universities and colleges take their reputation further with less risks to quality-control.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do with AI on a technical level, but even at its current stage it offers educators enough to transform both classrooms and entire schools,” says Tigwell. “These intelligent algorithms enable educational institutions to form real-time collaborations, reduce operational costs, and support worldwide scalability all at the same time. You could say they’re the most intelligent choice for schools looking to grow–both in quantity and quality.”

Watch Mark Tigwell answer your questions about AI on Microsoft Azure, and how it can help alleviate the challenges of Australia’s schools, on our YouTube channel.

Get started on Microsoft Azure, and learn how the Microsoft Imagine Academy and Microsoft Virtual Academy can help your students prepare for their future. Learn more about Microsoft Azure’s security policies here.


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