Are AI-Powered Chatbot Tutors the Future of Textbooks?


Are AI-Powered Chatbot Tutors the Future of Textbooks?

By Jeffrey R. Young, Tina Nazerian, Sydney Johnson and Stephen Noonoo     Mar 7, 2018

Are AI-Powered Chatbot Tutors the Future of Textbooks?
Julia Freeland Fisher of the Clayton Christensen Institute speaks at SXSW EDU

The mellow atmosphere at this year's SXSW EDU didn’t stop Day 3 keynoter danah boyd from lighting up Twitter and sparking countless conference-floor conversations on the merits of media literacy and how to think critically about critical thinking. A refreshing diversion into intellectualism, boyd’s talk was the clear highlight of a day that seemed almost to hum by on its own accord. (Read our full coverage of her remarks here.)

Speaking of mellow, the conference also featured a talk on how Austin’s local schools are getting in touch with their mindful side, though a district-wide program that encourages yoga, stretching and “deep finger breathing.” It’s already helped kids who spoke at a mindfulness session find some inner peace—and big audience laughs.

Here’s what else we saw, along with the answer to the question we’ve all been waiting for.

And the SXSW EDU startup pitch competition winner is…

Quottly! The San Francisco-based startup aims to help students find accredited and transferable college courses for when they aren’t able to get seats in courses that fill the same requirements at their own institution. Founded in 2015, Quottly currently lists 3 million courses in its database and students can register for courses directly through the company’s platform.

The annual competition was this year hosted by Alexandra Bernadotte, CEO and founder of Beyond 12, and Andrew Smith Lewis, CEO and founder of Cerego. Four judges selected Quottly out of 10 early-stage edtech startups that each have raised no more than $2 million.

Quottly at LAUNCH Sydney Johnson

How Bigger College Costs Could Mean Smaller Degrees

Unaffordable and rising tuition costs have prevented many students from accessing a higher education. And companies sponsoring employees’ education feel the stress too, causing many to cut back on efforts to pay students through a traditional masters program. That increasingly “leaves it up to corporations today to have huge training and learning development programs,” Anant Agarwal, CEO of massive open online course platform edX, said on Wednesday. Instead, some employers today are seeking shorter learning programs—usually online—that employees could complete without leaving work for an extended period of time.

Agarwal moderated a conversation between Mark Cousino, director of learning design and technology at Boeing, and TC Haldi, senior director of MITxPro, which develops professional learning programs. The university and aerospace company recently partnered to create an MIT certificate program for Boeing employees that lasts 17 weeks. Haldi said close to 5,000 people have completed it so far.

During the Q&A portion, however, listeners questioned whether employees such as office assistants and maintenance workers had access to the corporate mobility without a master’s or even bachelor’s under their belt first. Agarwal answered that online professional IT certificates geared for middle-skill workers could be one solution to that problem.

‘Who You Know’ Becomes ‘Who Do You Want to Know?’

Personal connections help fill between 40-50 percent of jobs. So what does that mean for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t have strong career networks? That was one question tackled by Julia Freeland Fisher, the director of education for the Clayton Christensen Institute, in a session about using technology to expand student networks.

Sociologists break down each person’s relationships into two groups: strong ties (meaning close friends and family members) and weak ties (think old colleagues, Facebook-only friends). Building up career-minded weak ties can be a challenge for some students, especially given that many teens attend schools with student-guidance counselor ratios as high as 400:1.*

Yet technology may be changing that at some schools (or “disrupting” it in Christensen parlance). Freeland Fisher highlighted several online platforms, including Skooli, Educurious, Nepris and Granny Cloud, which connect students with tutors, mentors and other invaluable weak tie contacts for as much as four hours per month. Other emerging platforms, such as ImBlaze, are using tech to connect students with those who are exclusively local, potentially building stronger weak ties, if you will.

“They are disruptive in that they are targeting areas of non-consumption,” Freeland Fisher said. “They’re taking communications technologies to where students’ alternatives are nothing at all, and as such they are disrupting the limitation of student and parenting networks.”

Are Libraries Ready to Code?

The idea of bringing coding to the local library might not be much of a stretch—but it is a bit of a lift, according to panelists speaking about their work with Libraries Ready to Code, an American Library Association-slash-Google-sponsored program that brings both traditional coding and buzzword-du-jour computational thinking skills to libraries across the country. Using a competitive selection process, the initiative funds coding programs in cohorts (the most recent one gave more than $500,000 to 28 libraries in 21 states).

For example, take a program called Little Coders in Waseca, Minn, which teaches pre-coding through activities focusing on sequencing, problem solving and narrative storytelling. It’s showing promise, but facilitators need to improve their own foundational skills before it can really shine. A Santa Barbara, Calif-based program, called CodeSB, also focuses on early coding—but it’s informal, drop-in attendance makes deeper learning difficult.

Better training for librarians, both at the university level and via professional development, could help improve programs like these. When it comes to the education librarians receive, a lot of it still focuses on literature and reading, writing and media literacy, said Mega Subramaniam, an associate professor at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. “But not so much computational thinking literacy,” she added. “There’s also a lack of focus on working with non-dominant”—i.e. minority—”youth and diverse populations.” Most importantly, she added, “we cannot teach computational thinking in isolation. It must be integrated with other curriculum.”

Will Future Textbooks Include Chatbot Tutors?

You probably remember that IBM Watson beat that Jeopardy champion a while back. Soon that same technology might power chatbots inside of online textbooks.

IBM Watson Education gave a demo of just such a system on Wednesday, which officials called an “intelligent tutoring system.” They showed off a seventh-grade physical science textbook that let students either chat questions about the text or respond to questions posed by the system (with open-ended responses). Bryan Dempsey, Global Offering Manager for IBM Watson Education, pretended to be a student interacting with the online textbook, which was projected on a screen for the audience to watch, while his colleague, Nirmal Mukhi, a “Master Inventor” for the company impersonated what Watson was thinking during the exchange. “This is a lot to read so I’m going to skip it and go straight to Watson,” said Dempsey when shown a long page of text. “Bad idea but that’s what most students do,” said Mukhi.

When Dempsey typed a partially correct answer, the chatbot replied with encouragement and then presented a fill-in-the-blank question to see if the student could fill in the rest of the answer. Mukhi said that question wasn’t pre-populated by an instructor, but instead concocted by the IBM Watson system’s AI algorithm. When Dempsey typed, “I hate you!” Watson defty replied, “Ouch! That hurts you know. Let’s go back to my question.”

The company is running pilot projects of the system with an online psychology textbook by Pearson (with just a few hundred students so far) and with an educational game made by Sesame Workshop. In those tests, some students have bonded with the chatbot more than the designers anticipated, raising design questions they said the team is still dealing with. “They start thinking of them as companions and they start to confide in them,” said Mukhi. “We need to think harder about that.”

Getting Funding When You’re an Entrepreneur from an Underrepresented Background

The audience listens as three panelists discuss their experience being entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds. (Source: Tina Nazerian)

According to Xiaohoa Michelle Ching, the narrative on how to build a successful startup is to get venture capital funding. But as a female founder of color leaving her teaching position, her experience didn’t match the privilege and pedigree investors were looking for. So Ching, the co-founder and CEO of Literator, a literacy tool, decided to prove to them that she was worth trusting by bootstrapping, or starting her company without outside money. She says it “was out of a necessity.”

Ching and two other entrepreneurs described what it’s like getting funding when you’re an entrepreneur from an underrepresented background, such as being young, female or a person of color.

Evin Robinson, the co-founder and director of non-profit New York on Tech, urged entrepreneurs coming from under-represented backgrounds to be themselves and not “code switch.”

“When you’re coming into a room, you always want to be yourself, because you never want to put into a position where later down the line, someone doesn’t recognize you, because you have changed into who you really are,” Robinson said.

He said if they remain their true selves, they’ll eventually connect with the right people “organically.” They shouldn’t force connections because that’s fake, and “eventually fake breaks.”

Logan Cohen, CEO and co-founder of Kudzoo, an app that rewards students for good grades, recalled one meeting where she walked in, and nobody realized she was the CEO, due to her androgynous name. When she told them her title, she saw them “kind of sink back in disappointment.”

She thinks that instead of being self-conscious about being the only woman in the room, or the only 20-something in the room or so forth, there’s an opportunity to act as a liaison. She “welcomed that pressure to represent.”

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