AI: The Future of Education

AI, the final frontier - evil robots taking over society or educational tool? Oftentimes when we hear the words artificial intelligence, we think of futuristic technologies, Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri, or Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s classic. This is why when the professor of my Creative Negotiation class at Ryerson University told us we’d be using an AI simulation, many of us were confused, intrigued, and slightly terrified to be dealing with something so inhuman. I watched as hands in the classroom shot up with questions, trying to understand the intricacies of dealing with artificial characters rather than real interactions. But what we quickly realized, is that they’re not nearly as inhuman as we thought.

 The Basics of AI in Education

 The simulation from the AI-based company, Ametros Learning, begins with instructions from your boss, Eli, the head of acquisitions for a TV development company based out of Toronto and occasional drunk-emailer. You are tasked with negotiating a deal with a literary agent to acquire the TV and film rights to her client’s novel. The platform is set up like an email account with an inbox of all your messages from your boss, the author and the author’s agent.

(Image courtesy of Ametros Learning Inc.)

(Image courtesy of Ametros Learning Inc.)

It’s quite impressive for example, when I type up a message saying, “I hope you and Jeremy are keeping warm”, the AI responds back by saying: “We’re all warm and Jeremy is doing much better today.” Jeremy is a three-legged donkey in case you were wondering, but the point is in recognizing how specific and individualized this particular simulation is.

 After only a few emails back and forth, I was astounded by how intelligent the platform is and how well-written and developed its characters are - all having their own unique personalities. Eli is a free-spirited creative who enacts a very hands-off approach while away vacationing in Cabo, while Lisa, is a dedicated author who takes a more personal approach and likes to talk about her kooky farm animals. While some students had some interesting and somewhat confrontational interactions with the characters, to say the least, my simulation went quite smoothly.

The simulation is split up into tasks you must complete, each involving communicating with different parties and working towards the final task of closing the deal. (Image courtesy of Ametros Learning Inc.)

The simulation is split up into tasks you must complete, each involving communicating with different parties and working towards the final task of closing the deal. (Image courtesy of Ametros Learning Inc.)

There is no right or wrong answer

 Depending on what you say and how successful you are at communicating and negotiating in a professional manner, you will get different responses, different attitudes and therefore, different results in the end for your deal. But as my professor had to assure us many many times, there is no right or wrong answer. Some are better than others of course, but the goal of the simulation is to practice firsthand, the negotiation tactics we learned throughout the semester, while being allowed to make mistakes. The better your negotiation strategy, tactics and ability to adapt to the parties’ interests, the better the outcome.

 Working first for Blackberry, then for the game-changing educational service D2L, CEO of Ametros Learning, Cathy Pillar was able to tell me a bit about Ametros’ focuses on education, workplace readiness and professional development. While the focus of my class is negotiation, Ametros has approximately 20 simulations in fields like crisis communication, persuasion, social work and corporate collaboration.

The Ametros Learning team (Photo courtesy of Ametros Learning Inc.)

The Ametros Learning team (Photo courtesy of Ametros Learning Inc.)

Ametros Learning Inc. and creating a risk-free environment

 The start-up has recently branched out beyond education in corporate training and learning, but Pillar states, “the same principles apply - the idea of giving people a risk-free place to practice and apply what they’ve learned and actually develop the skill,” rather than having a professor or HR manager talk at you.

 As the CEO of a two-year-old start-up, Cathy Pillar is the finance lead, the legal lead, the HR lead and the marketing lead for the company, but was clear about where Ametros’ vision came from: Professor of Communications, Robert Clapperton. He was teaching a class on writing one day, when he realized speaking about writing is fundamentally flawed. According to Pillar, “in order to learn writing, you need to actually write.”

Professor and Co-Founder of Ametros Learning, Robert Clapperton gives a Ted Talk on the difference between strong and weak AI and how AI and humans can work together in the professional and educational worlds.

My professor for the course, and Chair of the Creative Industries program at Ryerson University, James Nadler had a similar vision for his negotiation class. Nadler said, “I always thought the best way to learn negotiation was to do negotiations, and I couldn’t figure out how I could personally do negotiations with 20 students or with 55 students. It just seemed impractical.” When he heard of Ametros’ simulations, he quickly jumped at the opportunity to work with the company to create an environment where students could try out the course concepts and make mistakes in a risk-free environment.

 Collaboration is key

 As an entertainment lawyer, writer and producer, Nadler provided his expertise to create the basic bible for the simulation, including the narrative and the characters. What interests me the most about Ametros’ business strategy, is that it relies on collaboration with experts in various fields to create the educational simulations.

 According to Pillar, “We want to be seen as a collaborative brand because we couldn’t do what we do without our clients and the subject matter experts. [Ametros] is a unique combination of pedagogy, technology and creativity. We use resources around all of those things to bring it together.”

 One of the biggest things I took away from the simulation was that it’s not always about getting the best deal, or being a hard-ass until you get what you want. Instead, the focus should be on building long-term relationships and looking beyond the dollar amount to form connections. Collaboration is the key to making a deal that both sides can be proud of and apparently, for creating an AI simulation that’s both entertaining and educational. As Professor Luskin of London’s Institute of Education states, “It would be unthinkable for the medical profession, say, to introduce AI without the direct input of medics in the actual development of resources and exactly the same should be true of education”.

(Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash)

(Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash)

The future of AI in education

 Today, AI is being used in fields like healthcare, social media, the service industry and of course education. Bill Gates, the almighty leader of Microsoft has poured $240 million into a field he calls, “personalized learning”. In an interview with The Verge, he states, “the idea is that people progress at a different rate. If you’re ahead of what’s being taught in the class, that’s not good, you get bored. If you’re behind, then they’re using terms and concepts that create a general impression of ‘Hey, I’m not good at this’”.

 AI is a direct solution to this issue to the one-size-fits-all model of today’s education systems. According to Pillar, she sees potential in many different types of AI such as virtual tutors for asking questions and getting extra help if your teacher is busy helping others. There are also AI assessments that can see gaps in an individual’s learning and create a personalized curriculum to fit that individual’s needs.

 AI is an exciting innovation “with a massive, wide open playing field”, according to Cathy Pillar. As both she and Professor Nadler communicated to me, “education is a human endeavor”. They were both very clear that technology should be used to empower people and could never entirely replace them. Another thing that’s clear is that the term AI won’t be going away anytime soon.