Education

Robotics, AI put pressure on K-12 education to adapt and evolve

Developing the technology-enabled workforce has topped the discussion agenda for thought leaders in business, politics and policy.

Now, that discussion is rapidly moving to the K-12 education system, where the next generation must prepare for a world in which advanced technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will be the norm and not the novelty.

As midterm elections approach, with Democrats proposing education measures from improving teacher pay to free college, it's time for a bipartisan approach to K-12 education with more emphasis on teacher training and school assessments around implementing personalized learning.

At the center of this discussion is the most valuable asset in the classroom: teachers. At the same time, educators should not fear a technology intrusion, with visions of robots instead of humans at the head of the class.

Advanced tools such as adaptive learning platforms are highly effective for providing individualized instruction to students, while freeing up teachers to do what they do best to encourage more collaboration and creativity in the classroom.

Entrusting teachers to deliver their expertise is part of the success story in Finland, where significant gains in math and reading scores have led other countries to study its approach.

In the U.S, we foresee greater demand for teachers who are valued for their ability to motivate and engage students, while robotics and algorithms take over some routine tasks such as correcting spelling tests and math problems.

It's a solution for a system that's sorely out of date. The K-12 system lags in preparing most students for the future, whether that means a four-year college, community college, vocational school or entering the workforce where they will receive additional training, including apprenticeships.

As leading businesses deploy AI and robotics to improve productivity and realize efficiencies, there will be ever-increasing demand for 21st-century skills, i.e., the "Four Cs": communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.

Humans have a distinct advantage over machines in the Four Cs; mastering them enables humans to work most effectively in the AI-enabled work environment.

Adaptive learning and the "flipped classroom"

So how can learners at all levels enhance their knowledge and master the Four Cs? One compelling but surprisingly effective way is the flipped classroom, which literally reverses the typical instructional approach.

Students access online learning and interactive lessons at home, which allows them to come to class prepared to put that newly acquired knowledge into practice. The technology delivers the instruction, but the teacher determines the content and sequencing and develops classroom lesson plans.

Harvard Medical School, for example, implemented flipped classrooms years ago. One medical school professor recently told me how students came to class having mastered all the core material and were eager to launch into sophisticated discussions and questions, which were well beyond what they were supposed to be focused on.

The flipped classroom concept applies across grade levels, from elementary school to post-secondary and beyond. Consider, for example, a typical fifth grade classroom where students have more learning variations than a highly select group of medical students.

In a typical elementary school classroom, some students will struggle to grasp basic knowledge while others will absorb it quickly and dive into advanced learning.

But in all cases, from grade school to medical school, it's not just delivering extra knowledge; rather, it's finding extra time to develop the all-important Four Cs. For top learners who grasp the knowledge easily, more time can be devoted to developing and practicing the Four Cs.

Students at the bottom tier, however, would be left behind without the instructional support of the technology-enabled flipped classroom. For them, technology that personalizes learning is key to helping them achieve a level of learning and exposure to the Four Cs, instead of engaging in a survival fight in the knowledge domain.

Adaptive learning opens the door to more advanced teaching methods, such as small-group supplemental instruction, which has been shown to be highly effective in improving student learning.

The value of adaptive learning at K-12 is in replicating one-on-one tutoring to support individualized instruction, to meet learners where they are and get them up to speed quickly. We've seen the effectiveness of this approach in corporate learning and worker training and the same approach in the K-12 classroom to deliver precise content that addresses each learner's needs.

Initial forays into adaptive learning, however, were often ineffective, as many were "inference models" that made assumptions about where and how learners would struggle, instead of taking a truly individualized approach.

Next-generation adaptive learning, however, focuses on each student's knowledge gaps, where they are confused or unsure of what they've learned and what they've mastered and don't need to waste time relearning.

As the focus on worker readiness and training for the AI-enabled workplace intensifies, there is a greater mandate to view K-12 education through the same lens. Teachers will be a huge part of the solution, with technology tools to make them even better at teaching students with a personalized approach.

Ulrik Juul Christensen is CEO of Area9 Lyceum, which develops personalized, adaptive online learning modules for schoolchildren, students and professionals. He is a former senior fellow at McGraw Hill. 

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