Empowering Educators and Transforming Higher Education: A Roadmap to Learning in an AI Era

A peek into a typical workday: AI and thereafter

My workday begins at 8 am. I am seated at my desk, studying 2 screens my artificial intelligence (AI) powered assistant “Ripley” has tabulated and projected before me. Ripley is one among the several personalized AI aides available to everybody via neural implants, assisting us in both our personal lives and careers akin to the smartphone of yesteryears. The first screen shows 30 young faces along with their names and backgrounds. Adjacent to each face is a variety of data, most of it in the form of metrics and graphs. I carefully scan this information, which gives me insight into the academic history of each student of the undergraduate classroom in mechanical engineering I will be teaching in the next one hour. Ripley also runs me through collective data pertaining to the knowledge background, motivational levels and familiarity of the class regarding the contents of the lesson. The interface is easy to use, and I skim through the contents asking Ripley to provide more details whenever necessary. The second screen furnishes me with aims, learning outcomes, activities and assessments on the topic to be taught i.e. 3-D printing. These were generated by Ripley via machine learning algorithms corresponding to the information gathered in the first screen, and further tapping into big data available on the course from classrooms around the world. Before moving to the smart classroom1 I make some minor modifications on the lesson plan, which Ripley seamlessly communicates to the students’ AI assistants.

Once the students are seated, I begin the class by getting them to introduce themselves and going through the lesson plan. Those who cannot attend class physically join as remote participants via holoportation2, a virtual teleportation technology which enables full 3-dimensional telepresence. As the class progresses, I deploy AI enabled Augmented Reality3 interfaces to showcase several types of 3-D printers in real time. This helps students visualize their working principles as if they were in an actual workshop, the graphics near realistic, being generated by deep learning algorithms. In addition, students can manipulate and interact with the environment seamlessly via Ambient intelligence (AmI)4 systems. Assessments and task-oriented learning scenarios are simulated using Virtual Reality (VR), which enables students to design and manufacture components on virtual 3-D printers, and then validate its usage in an AI generated environment. My role during this time is to help facilitate learning by helping them explore and learn at their own pace, making use of the technology available at their disposal. I move around the classroom clarifying doubts, getting them to collaborate with one another and encouraging them to exercise their creativity in solving problems posed to them by their intelligent assistants. This is how I envision my typical workday to pan out, as a teacher of mechanical engineering in an era propelled by advancements in artificial intelligence and its progeny.

The changing face of higher education: en route to an AI era

Higher education in engineering and most other disciplines relies on an age-old knowledge-intensive approach, which rests on the foundations of rote learning and conformity. This has resulted in the mass-production of graduates lacking in vital attributes such as critical thinking, problem solving and decision making. Even though present-day education is aided by a variety of technological advancements ranging from computers to the World Wide Web, university graduates remain woefully short of skills necessary to succeed in the real world5. Needless to say, this necessitates significant transformations in the prevailing education system and its deliverers, especially if we are to remain “relevant” moving into an era dominated by machines and technology. Now, there are a few key questions which we must ask ourselves before formulating or attempting to establish reforms. Firstly, what are the principal attributes required in a workforce hired during a time when AI becomes ubiquitous? Secondly, what are the challenges faced by educators today in bringing about the changes necessary to build these skills? Finally, how can educators address these challenges and continue to do so in the future, without being replaced by AI themselves? I would like to examine the first two questions in this section of the essay and dedicate the last section to scrutinizing the final one.

With rapid advances being made in AI research as well as its growing ability to tackle tremendous quantities of information, graduates will no longer be hired based on the knowledge they possess, but their ability to apply this knowledge in solving complex problems6. Knowledge per se will be rendered useless in the future employee. To remain competitive in a world overshadowed by AI, humanity will need to train itself to perform “non-routine creative work” as opposed to “routine knowledge-based work”6. Artificial neural-network based AI systems have already mastered and replaced humans in a variety of specialized tasks in sectors including financial trading, transportation and healthcare diagnostics to name a few7. It is only a matter of time before they eliminate all repetitive task jobs, with automation substituting for manual labor in these cases8. Nevertheless, on the positive side, such an era is also believed to create a whole new sub-set of jobs and problems, comparable to that of a second industrial revolution9. These jobs engendered by AI and its sister technologies will require complex cognitive skills such as problem solving, innovation, creativity, workplace collaboration, self-direction etc.

Before we look into the process of building said skills, it is important that we are also aware of the key challenges currently faced by educators in administering their duties. Teaching is one among the most overworked and underpaid careers of today, with high attrition rates, demanding workloads as well as poor work-life balance10,11. Teachers face a plethora of challenges when carrying out their tasks such as lack of sufficient time, lack of student engagement, lack of funds and resources, inadequate training etc. The current system forces them to be more concerned about covering the curriculum, when they should in fact be focusing on achieving the learning outcomes of the lesson. Consequently, they adopt a vapid lecture-based approach for imparting knowledge to students, which rarely allows for interaction and at the same time is boring12 thanks to the enormous amounts of information doled out in short periods of time. Another key issue is the dearth of training given to teachers in adapting themselves to the changing needs of time, both in terms of engaging students as well as harnessing technology to promote deeper learning and better retention levels. Next, there exists a disparity in the distribution of learning resources among students, which prevents educators from achieving equal educational outcomes. This is a consequence of the inequities existing among the different communities in terms of gender bias, social class and economic status. Only a privileged few can afford or have access to technology, facilities, qualified and experienced teachers necessary for a well-rounded education, thus giving rise to educational inequality and elitism13.

Educators are further handicapped by the diverse learning styles of students and as a result, deploy teaching techniques which are general in nature, assuming that it caters to the majority. Sir Ken Robinson, one of the most illustrious figures in education today, has stressed on the need for more personalization and less standardization in learning14. Standardization in education has worked well in the 20th century where most jobs have required graduates to specialize in narrow domains, rarely needing them to think out of the box. It has further influenced teachers and management in their approach to education, creating a culture where traits like innovation and creativity are almost non-existent. On the contrary, the 21st century calls for an education system which goes beyond mere dissemination of knowledge; it calls for a system which empowers its products to remain productive and evolve into successful individuals once they step outside its portals.

The way forward for educators: what will it take?

Now, how do we ensure this idea of an efficacious education system is made tangible going forward into an AI era– or to be more precise, what efforts will it take to realize this goal of building a relevant skill set in every student, irrespective of their socioeconomic status or academic discipline? I argue that the answer to these questions rests on remolding the three fundamental aspects of educational delivery: the “what” is delivered, the “who” delivers and the “how” to deliver.

The “what” and the “how” for the most part depends on the skillset to be forged into the workforce. At this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting held at Davos, several leaders including Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group emphasized the importance of soft skills like independent thinking, values and team-work to stay competent in a future where all routine work is automated via AI15. For this to materialize, the current knowledge-intensive approach to education must be overhauled and in its place, a problem-based learning platform16 must be instituted into the curriculum. The principle of this approach is to allow students to learn and understand concepts by solving open-ended real-world problems in collaborative groups. In essence, the curriculum is designed so as to “nurture” creativity, not “smother” it. Several universities including Stanford and St. Gallen have already implemented this approach in the form of courses such as Design Thinking, where industrial partners put forward problems in class, which students then attempt to resolve guided by their professors in a highly engaged manner over long periods of time6. This fosters active learning among students, allowing them to assume responsibility in the learning process, and providing them with opportunities to exercise their creative skills while working together as a team. Moreover, this helps them gain a broader picture of the problem, which is important to help them function as effective leaders and managers who can look beyond their own specific domains in an industry or organization.

AI powered technologies can further be harnessed to augment the “how” to deliver aspect in several inventive ways. For example, if the class was on 3-D printing, AI powered augmented-reality (AR) interfaces could be utilized to simulate virtual printers, which students can then utilize to print out virtual models of the components in real time. Such a virtual set-up gives them the freedom to make mistakes and rework their solutions, as there is no material cost or waste involved. In addition, this allows students to attain higher levels of learning as they learn concepts in a setting closely resembling their future context, which in this case is a 3-D printing firm. Assessments can be done on the fly, with AI assistants being harnessed to provide every student with immediate feedback. AI powered Virtual Reality (VR) interfaces on the other hand can be used to simulate customized field trips making it possible for each student to have a personalized learning experience. These are typical examples of an adaptive learning system where data collected on students’ performance can then be leveraged by AI to provide learning content tailored for each of them17.

The “who” delivers includes educators, administrators and policymakers, on whose shoulders lies the responsibility of bringing about the educational reforms necessary for preparing humanity to stay competent in an AI era. I believe that the initial target to transformation at any level of education should be the educators themselves. Adequate training should be given to both existing and future educators to implement the revamped competency-based curriculum and harness the technological advances to promote deeper learning among students. It is vital that as teachers, we do not end up competing with AI systems like “Ripley” for imparting education; instead we should focus on using such intelligence assistants as enablers in helping students achieve the learning outcomes, and in delivering an enjoyable and stimulating learning experience. For us educators to stay ahead of AI, we must learn to cultivate social and emotional skills in engaging students, as this is what differentiates us from the former. We must redefine our traditional role of solely being a deliverer of knowledge, to that of an empathetic and effective facilitator of the learning process18. In addition, funds must be directed to make educational technology affordable and accessible to all irrespective of their backgrounds, so that going forward we do not end up recreating an automated version of the existing inequities in education.

In conclusion, I firmly believe that the influence of AI on education is inevitable; and only by embracing the former can we steer it towards rising to a new level of empowerment and ephemeralization19 in any discipline, be it engineering or otherwise.

References

  1. Alelaiwi, A. et al. Enhanced engineering education using smart class environment. Comput. Human Behav. 51, 852–856 (2015).
  2. Fanello, S. et al. Holoportation : Virtual 3D Teleportation in Real-time. Chi 741–754 (2016). doi:10.1145/2984511.2984517
  3. Billinghurst, M. Augmented Reality and Education. New Horizons Learn. 21(3) 195-209 (2002). doi:10.4018/jgcms.2011010108
  4. Remagnino, P. & Foresti, G. L. Ambient intelligence: A new multidisciplinary paradigm. IEEE Trans. Syst. Man, Cybern. Part ASystems Humans. 35, 1–6 (2005).
  5. Nair, C. S., Patil, A. & Mertova, P. Re-engineering graduate skills – a case study. Eur. J. Eng. Educ. 34, 131–139 (2009).
  6. Bernhard Schindlholzer. Artificial intelligence & the future of education systems | Bernhard Schindlholzer | TEDxFHKufstein – YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdHhs-I9FVo. (Accessed: 26th January 2018)
  7. Tegmark, M. Life 3.0 : being human in the age of artificial intelligence.
  8. Frey, C. & Osborne, M. The future of emplyment: how susceptible are jobs to computerization? Sept 1–72 (2013). doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2016.08.019
  9. Kevin Kelly: How AI can bring on a second Industrial Revolution | TED Talk | TED.com. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/kevin_kelly_how_ai_can_bring_on_a_second_industrial_revolution. (Accessed: 27th January 2018)
  10. Teachers are overworked but still dedicated, new survey suggests | Teacher Network | The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/mar/12/teachers-overworked-undervalued-education-survey. (Accessed: 26th January 2018)
  11. 60-hour weeks and unrealistic targets: teachers’ working lives uncovered | Teacher Network | The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/datablog/2016/mar/22/60-hour-weeks-and-unrealistic-targets-teachers-working-lives-uncovered. (Accessed: 26th January 2018)
  12. Why do 60% of students find their lectures boring? | Education | The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2009/may/12/university-teaching. (Accessed: 28th January 2018)
  13. Educational inequality still an obstacle to talented students, Letters in Print News & Top Stories – The Straits Times. Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-in-print/educational-inequality-still-an-obstacle-to-talented-students. (Accessed: 28th January 2018)
  14. Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! | TED Talk | TED.com. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution. (Accessed: 26th January 2018)
  15. 6 quotes from Davos on the future of education | World Economic Forum. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/top-quotes-from-davos-on-the-future-of-education/. (Accessed: 30th January 2018)
  16. Schmidt, H. G., Rotgans, J. I. & Yew, E. H. J. The process of problem-based learning: what works and why. Med. Educ. 45, 792–806 (2011).
  17. Three ways education is being disrupted by digital technology. Available at: https://www.digitalpulse.pwc.com.au/three-ways-education-disruption-digital-technology/. (Accessed: 31st January 2018)
  18. These 7 trends are shaping personalized learning | Education Dive. Available at: https://www.educationdive.com/news/these-7-trends-are-shaping-personalized-learning/434575/. (Accessed: 1st February 2018)
  19. Ephemeralization – Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephemeralization. (Accessed: 1st February 2018)

 

Musings on a Friday

Friday-Prompt1

I am seated at a desk in Minerva, one of the few reading rooms at NTU open for most part of the day. It’s a regular Friday evening, few fellow inhabitants in attendance, tapping away into keyboards or staring at monitors. There is a loud cheering noise in the background, which I presume is being echoed in most parts of the campus thanks to the freshman orientation camps. Boisterous groups of freshmen rove about the campus, lending their participation into a multitude of activities, all aimed at bonding within the cohort.

A little more than 2 years have passed since I arrived in Singapore, 2 years and 15 days to be precise. I’ve been wondering of late, about my time here, especially the last year leading up to my present situation. It’s funny, how in hindsight, circumstances can look silly, even a touch comic. It all began when I was completing my Master’s thesis, roughly about the same time last year. Every day, I’d go the CAE lab trying to figure out the intricacies of performing a computer aided simulation, on a piezoelectric cantilever. Most of the time, I’d have no clue what I was doing, let alone know what I wanted to do in the first place. The analysis would for mostly result in these bizarre curves, many orders of magnitude from the expected results. Evenings would arrive, always leaving me at a stage slightly worse off than where I’d started. Simulation, if it has taught me anything, is that patience is indeed a virtue (gritting my teeth)!!

Next, there was the predicament connected with job applications. Hours spent filling up countless forms, attaching CVs and waiting for interview calls which of course, never came. Singapore is an expensive city to live in, not exactly ideal for an unemployed mechanical engineer with dwindling finances. The oil and gas industry had hit rock bottom; the manufacturing sector wasn’t looking good either. Adding on to this were the strict laws enforced by the government on the employers, concerning the ratio of locals to foreigners amongst the employees. None of my applications ever yielded any result. For the record, I didn’t even land a single interview call. My confidence level had plummeted to an all-time low; I was quickly running out of cash. Having worked for a few years previously, I was averse to asking my parents for finances. It was around this point I realized I needed some kind of part time employment to sustain myself. I tried  various jobs ranging from e-commerce to selling magnetic mattresses. I must confess I almost laughed at my pathetic situation. Here I was, a graduate mechanical engineer with prior work experience in a world-renowned organization, selling mattresses for a living. My mum and I made light of this, comparing my situation to that faced by a character in an old Malayalam film “T.P Balagopalan MA”. The role enacted by none other than Mohanlal, depicts the plight of a middle-class postgraduate reduced to selling wallpapers, thanks to the near impossibility of finding a better job at the time. It didn’t take me very long to realize I was a hopeless salesman. It was after I completed my thesis I finally found a job more suited to my taste, as a science tutor at a private organisation, catering to students of international schools.

Things were looking slightly better, and it suddenly hit me that I hadn’t been paying much attention to my significant other. We’d drifted apart the last couple of weeks and this gap had festered getting worse as days passed. It has always a flaw of mine, that I turn cold and retreat into my shell when assailed by uncertainty. My taciturnity, frostiness and sombre moods had driven her away, leaving our relationship in shambles. The end inexorably arrived and we parted ways. The next few months were quite the emotional roller-coaster, the time which I presume most lovers go through; the aftermath of a shattered relationship. The phase of should haves and could haves; the permutations and the combinations of decisions which might have changed things for the better; the phase of self-reproach, knowing there is nothing you can do, and yet attempting to, making things all the worse. Now, this brings me to one of Steven’s quotes, one which really struck me at the time:

“I love you still, but with your death I succumbed to a kind of infatuation. I convinced myself that what you and I had, so very briefly, was of far vaster and deeper import than it truly was. Of all the weapons we chose to turn upon ourselves, guilt is the sharpest, Silverfox. It can carve one’s own past into unrecognizable shapes, false memories leading to beliefs that sow all kinds of obsessions.”
 Steven Erikson, Memories of Ice

I won’t say I’ve gotten over it all, those myriad memories of us together, which for some reason appear so much sweeter in retrospect. But yes, there is some kind of closure there now, a full stop which comes at a point you realize you have a choice; you either move on, or you remain a chronically grieving fool, forever wallowing in the misery of unrequited love.

Okay, now before this starts sounding like a column dedicated to agony aunt, I must say things did get better eventually. Well, not quite how I’d wanted them to turn out, but that’s life for you, doling out lessons when you least expect them.  These phases I went through, I am quite sure, are in no way unique or exclusive to me. Of course, it’s a horrid place to be in, but nothing like a few lessons from the University of hard knocks to anneal you to the vagaries of life, eh? Selling mattresses was a big deal? This friend of mine used to shovel snow in the blistering cold to earn his cash while he was studying.

I will not say the last year has left me any wiser, but it sure has shown me how foolish and short-sighted I can be most of the time. It has also shown me how valuable family and friends are, when trying to sail your way through difficult circumstances. Most importantly, it has given me a glimpse of how unpredictable and transient, life really is, which brings me to yet another quote, this time by the immortal Maugham.

“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is of the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy.”

W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge

Time really does heal all wounds, which reminds me that it’s time I left! Enough for a Friday, eh? Cheers!

 

Destination Singapore!

IMG_20140719_151815807

Merlion at Sentosa

After a 3 year stint at Volvo Trucks, Bangalore, providence has landed me in Singapore, on the 14th of July, for a one year Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at NTU. I was accompanied by my father, who had decided to make this his first post retirement trip. I was quite excited as this was my first international trip, but at the same time, was extremely tired as I’d been working till the 11th. The last couple of days had just zoomed away what with all the packing and last-minute purchasing. Our flight was from Chennai and we took a train from Bangalore on the morning of the 13th. We reached Chennai early in the evening and then boarded the flight at 21:45. Fortunately, everything went smoothly and there were no hassles during the journey.

We arrived at Changi Airport at half past five and a took a cab to a relative’s(Amara aunty) place. She stays at Taman Jurong, about 45 km from the airport. We were there in next to no time as there was absolutely no traffic and were greeted by both her and her son. They were up early that day, watching the finals of the FIFA World cup. We were ushered into our room and both me and my dad were out like lights, exhausted after the long journey.

The next couple of days were just amazing.  Singapore is probably the cleanest and most organized city in the world. Coming from Bangalore, I could actually feel how far behind we  were in terms of planning. The first one hour of traveling we spent marveling at each and every tiny aspect which made the city so efficient and beautiful. It’s quite an eyeful to one who has lived in the chaos of Indian cities. Also, there was the culture shock of seeing people from so many ethnic backgrounds around. I really must confess that I did a lot of staring that day 🙂 .

We visited NTU in the morning and, woah!, it was the most massive campus I’d ever seen in my life, spread around 500 acres, which is about 8 times the size of R.V College. It was mind-blowing, we actually got lost inside the university the very first day. It was the first time I was getting a feel of a full-scale international university, and, boy oh boy, was it awesome!

NTU

NTU

The first thing I did was to collect the key to my room in the hostel, an electronic one. To cut down expenses I had chosen a double room which I would be sharing with another student. The room was very well planned and had all the furniture I needed along with a bed as shown below:

IMG_20140722_175052555

#8-14 B

I also met Sankalp a classmate of mine from RV who will be staying in the same hostel a level below ours. He was with us at Volvo for a year and now will be studying the same course as me here at NTU. Over the next few days we completed all the joining formalities like registration, opening a bank account, medical test, tuition fee loan application and exploring the campus. Also we had to register for the various orientation activities organized by the Graduate Student Council, the elected representative body of graduate students at NTU. I also purchased a local SIM and an EZ-link card which is required for traveling by MRT as well as bus. The MRT system is just fantastic in Singapore and can get you to almost all locations in the city including the airport. Travel is very cheap this way and just about 100SGD is required per person for visiting all the must see locations in the city/country.

The one thing which really stands out in Singapore is the variety offered when it comes to food. You can find Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian, Western, Malay eateries in almost every mall, each of these again serving multifarious dishes. The prices are also quite reasonable ranging from 3 to 6 SGD for a full meal. The past 10 days I must say have been a gastronomical delight for me. Amara aunty, who we were staying with, added to this experience by churning out delectable dishes in every meal she cooked for us. All in all, I should confess that our tummies must have had a really hard time digesting all the stuff that kept going in at regular intervals.

I joined my dad in touring the city once I completed all my joining formalities. We visited Sentosa, Marina Bay, Singapore zoo, Little India, China town and also traveled extensively within the city. I will refrain from giving detailed descriptions of all these places as I feel the reader ought to visit and discover these places in person.

My dad returned to India on the 23rd and I moved into my room in the hostel the next day. Here, I will begin my journey as a student once again after working for 3 years now. I am looking forward to my time here and am hoping to meet a lot of interesting people. Also at the same time I will do my best not to let down those numerous friends of mine who have specifically asked me to have fun during my stay here 🙂 . Let me leave you now with one of my favorite quotes by Thoreau.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods