How Artificial Intelligence can help us learn

In 1943, Alan Turing invented a test to identify “intelligent” machines – machines so smart they could make someone believe they’re talking to a real person.

In 1956, the term Artificial Intelligence was coined and by 1997 IBM’s infamous Deep Blue computer beat the reigning world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. AI had arrived. But many of us are still hazy about exactly what we mean by Artificial Intelligence.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

“By 2020 30% of global businesses will employ AI in at least one sales process. 4 billion devices will carry AI-powered voice assistants this year alone.” (

AI is running in the background of our daily lives continuously. It’s analysing our random internet browsing, our search histories. It simulates human intelligence by processing vast amounts of data and interrogating it to offer up choices, make decisions and solve problems. Siri cracks pub quiz questions, Amazon drones deliver goods. Netflix recommends our next must-see movie. AI suggestions seem “intelligent” because they are reflecting our own preferences.

This definition of AI is different to Robotics. The word ‘robot’ often triggers far more mixed emotions than that helpful little chatbot that pops up in the lower righthand corner to ask if you need any help finding car insurance. Are we “summoning the demon” as Elon Musk put it? Or is AI simply the next level of computing – making data-driven decisions by analysing data faster than a human can. It is intelligent, but it is not intuitive.

Learning to love AI

AI is big news in eLearning. A study published by eSchool News predicted that by 2021, the use of AI in education will increase by 47.5% – and that was pre-Covid19. Much of that growth is driven by AI’s ability to provide ‘adaptive learning’.

As a student works through a course, AI continuously monitors their progress and their answers. It learns about them and their preferences and adapts the course content, suggesting different scenarios depending on how they answer certain questions. This type of content is referred to as branching scenarios. It’s a way to practice those soft skills required in leadership or customer service – helping learners work through decision-making processes for handling different situations. Students can work through complex sequences of scenarios in real time, ‘as the story unfolds’.

Bright Affect uses branching scenarios to create intuitive, engaging content to support learners. Obviously, the longer the scenario becomes, the greater the number of possible options and ‘alternate endings’ needed to complete the course. Branching scenarios are hugely beneficial to leaners, but tricky to create. Without using AI to retrieve and serve up adaptive scenarios, this complex content can be unwieldy to manage and maintain.

AI is already widely used by popular learning apps such as Duolingo or Khan Academy. These apps continuously monitor students’ responses to questions – if you’ve got a weak spot in your armour, whether it’s time management or irregular French verbs – AI will identify where you are struggling and review a huge store of content in milliseconds. It will then select further learning material that is the next best step for you. You spend time reviewing what you don’t know, rather than going over and over what you do know. More efficient for the employer, and more engaging for the student.

Like having a private tutor at your side, rather than sitting in a lecture hall with 30 students.

Hello, what can I help you with?

The rise and popularity of voice-activated AI such as Siri, or Alexa, also opens up the possibility of replacing teaching assistants with virtual equivalents in online learning. These chatbot-style assistants can add value by answering student questions about the course, offering additional material and making ‘intelligent’ suggestions for deeper learning.

Some AI advocates are convinced that virtual AI assistants can and should replace teaching assistants as remote learning becomes our new normal. Their ‘invisible monitoring’ of student performance and learning is arguably more dedicated, more knowledgeable and doesn’t need coffee breaks. But you can’t replicate passion or charisma with a bot.

“Artificial intelligence would be the ultimate version of Google. The ultimate search engine that would understand everything on the web. It would understand exactly what you wanted, and it would give you the right thing. We’re nowhere near doing that now.” Larry Page, computer scientist

Better than a textbook, but not better than a good teacher just yet.

The potential role of AI in eLearning is enormous. Remote learning has resulted in a recognition that AI can provide better student engagement because it has dynamic capabilities. It can respond to students individually in a way that seems intelligent. We are seeing how AI can actually accelerate the learning process and make skills stick by improving engagement and retention rates of information.

The more data an AI system processes, the more ‘human’ it seems… but even the mighty GPT-3 that can ‘write’ poetry and film scripts to rival real writers, is still 1000 times smaller than the average brain’s capacity (100 trillion synapses). We can pick up a complex new skill by watching someone perform it only a few times – an ability that machines do not yet possess. But their sheer speed at processing data surpassed our own decades ago.

When Artificial Intelligence seems like Artificial Intuition – that will be a giant leap along the eLearning pathway.

“Some people worry that artificial intelligence will make us feel inferior, but then, anybody in his right mind should have an inferiority complex every time he looks at a flower.” —Alan Kay