How AI Can Support Teaching Under COVID-19 and Beyond

By W. Lewis Johnson, Alelo and Neil Heffernan, Worcester Polytechnic University

At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, 1.6 billion students worldwide were affected by school closures. Teaching suddenly underwent drastic changes, as teachers adapted to online learning and videoconferencing. Some students thrived in the new online learning environment, while others struggled. What can teachers expect when students come back to school? And how can artificial intelligence (AI) help them overcome the challenges that they are likely to face?

The biggest challenge under COVID-19 was for educational programs that were forced to switch in midstream from classroom instruction to online instruction, with little warning or preparation. The results have often been disappointing for the students as well as the teachers. A student in a such a program recently commented: “we basically have to teach ourselves. It’s like paying tuition to watch YouTube videos.”

The Brookings Institution has projected the likely impact of COVID-19 on students by the fall of 2020, and the forecasts are sobering. Some students will be performing at grade level, while others will have lost much ground and will be performing at a lower level than they did a year before.

Artificial intelligence can help overcome these disparities, not by replacing teachers but by supporting then. Two AI-driven learning platforms, Enskill English from Alelo and ASSiSTments from Worcester Polytechnic University, illustrate how this can be done. These tools let students practice on their own and get feedback, substituting for classroom activities that often get lost when programs transition online.

Importantly, these platforms report statistics on student performance to teachers. This enables teachers to track student progress and adapt their teaching practices as needed. The benefits of such tools are particularly important in the COVID-19 environment because they help teachers identify students who are struggling and at risk of falling behind. Teachers can then use them to help their students recover lost ground, while they provide students emotional support.

AI technologies are also emerging that help teachers manage classroom activities, both in class and online. Others can track student engagement and identify students who may be having difficulty focusing or experiencing social and emotional difficulties.

Professional development will be key to the success of any AI-enhanced educational program. For example, a recent evaluation of ASSiSTments showed that ASSiSTments combined with teacher training improved learning, in part because teachers reliably improved their teaching practices.

Alelo is hosting a webinar, as part of Alelo’s webinar series on the future AI in education and training, in which we will discuss these and other issues in depth. We will follow this with a webinar on how AI can support students during COVID-19 and beyond. Then in July Dr. Johnson will lead a panel at the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education on the role of AI in helping teachers and students cope with COVID-19.

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