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How AI will rescue us from online learning’s ‘bad television’

Post-pandemic, some of universities’ teaching practices may never return. And that’s a good thing. In parallel, artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming so capable it could start changing how we learn. Covid, perversely, may herald a renaissance for online learning.

Most digital learning today is terrible, resembling “bad television”, as frequent collaborator professor Alex Pentland of MIT puts it. According to a 2019 study, only 3 per cent of students who start an online class finish it. All too often, an “online class” consists of sticking a tripod in the back of a lecture hall, recording a three-hour lecture and posting it online. This is a recipe almost guaranteed to produce failure.

THE Campus resource: How to use online tools to offer more personalised teaching

In a classroom, students have a variety of cognitive prompts that help them focus. At that, the “sage on a stage” model is demonstrably worse at helping them learn than other approaches, such as working in teams or groups to solve problems. Sage on a stage is undeniably good business, though: if universities can pay one professor and have 500 students packed into a lecture hall, they have good efficiency and revenue-to-cost per student.

In recent years, the elusive economic promise of online learning has emerged, where we can have thousands of paying students but only one professor salary to cover. Many universities have decided to optimise revenue at the expense of student experience, creating a growing antipathy to the medium among students.  

Online lacks the mental cues required for focus. Noise from our environment, lack of three dimensionality and other atmospherics create a cacophony of distraction. The rapidity with which the pandemic emerged forced many academic institutions to simply deliver classes, unreconstructed, on Zoom.

The “Zoominar” combines all the deficiencies of sage

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