Reimagining Learning and Empowering Outcomes With AI


Dr. Andy Shean, Chief Learning Officer, Penn Foster Group

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It seems like yesterday that Clayton Christensen, with colleagues Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson, published Disrupting Class, in which bold predictions of college closures equivalent to the dust bowls would occur by 2020 and mass customization would drive greater personalization and affordability in higher education. If you have read Failure to Disrupt by Justin Reich (Director of Teaching Systems Lab at MIT), many of these provocative claims have failed to fully be realized. And yet, if you were to ask most education technology thought leaders, the promise of digital courseware with machine learning powered by AI, alongside big data analytic capabilities that help drive targeted engaging content, is a promising solution to improve student outcomes in education. So why is education slower to adopt these promising solutions, especially with so many examples of technological transformation and disruption all around us (e.g., forty years ago, Toyota sold mopeds, Oldsmobile was a well-known brand, and there were only three TV networks)?  

Perhaps education is slow to embrace new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning for a variety of reasons. For one, education is messy and complex. If you really do the research, the efficacy associated with adaptive learning, on-demand tutoring, and other personalized interventions has had mixed results. Perhaps cost, professional development, and/or awareness of what is available is a dynamic in the mix. 

Regardless of the reason(s), let’s embrace the insightful leadership analogy of Rosabeth Moss Kanter in the well-regarded Zoom In, Zoom Out philosophy to decision making. If we Zoom In, we see a pandemic that has forced higher education/K-12 to move online at a rapid pace, and while many students are fatigued from “Zoom University”, it’s impossible to imagine the impact of the last few years won’t have implications for future investment in online learning infrastructure, professional development, and general strategic movements towards leveraging technology to enhance the learning experience. If anything, it will at least create more flexible learning pathways for students. 

If we Zoom Out, all educational schools will enter the online space and research effectiveness of different pedagogical approaches will dramatically grow. The increased spotlight on research, coupled with advances in the cognitive sciences, will give us new insights regarding how to create even more effective digital learning environments. Bror Saxburg, former Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan Inc, coined the term “Knowledge Engineer” to represent this evolution in how we design future learning environments. These advances, combined with the incessant pace of innovation in digital technologies that facilitate better scaffolding experiences, will create a unique opportunity to reimagine online learning. Add innovations and investment in generative AI, and you have a moment in time like no other. In other words, the inflection point is now!

“We’ve never seen a technology move as fast as AI has to impact society and technology. This is by far the fastest moving technology that we’ve ever tracked in terms of its impact and we’re just getting started.” -Paul Daugherty, CEO Accenture

As we together embark on the next phase of online learning, we must reimagine aspects of an education and student experience in service of delivering even greater value, an emotional connection that connects to the brand(s) and delivers a product that has motivational circuitry to encourage the habits of usage and persistence. This will include better harnessing data to enable a high touch and evidence-based engagement approach; a unique blend of dynamic content aligned to meet students at their point of need, and an even more consistent and cohesive learner navigation and service support environment powered by AI and high impact human interactions. We must also increase opportunities for learners/employers to quickly upskill through shorter form, bit-sized modules powered by a product learning skill ecosystem. 

The online learning landscape is at a moment of seismic shift and evolution – innovations and learnings from the past decade fused with advances in technology, cognitive sciences, and generative AI are undeniable disruptions to education. This shift should guide our learning models from content-centered to human-centered, abstract learning to situated and authentic learning, passive learning to active learning, objective competence to skill mastery, and static learning to dynamic learning. Gone should be the days of in-person lectures simply dropped into an online format without a full understanding of virtual learning best practices. 

As we approach the next phase of online learning, there are burgeoning opportunities that AI presents, along with online pedagogy shifts, to transform and reimagine how students learn. However, the broader academic community will need efficacy along with unique insight and actionable steps on how to utilize new technology to shift away from rote instruction toward the development of a more engaging learning experience.

And we must do this reimagining together – this conviction is informed by my own experiences in that significant outcome improvement almost always require new and novel ways for collaboration and cooperation as no single group in a department can materially change the total experience and outcomes, i.e., it takes a village. 

In the end, our population of students hunger to be upskilled to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving job market. The skills they need must not only prepare them for their future job but also equip them with competencies that transcend such as communication, digital, creativity, etc. 

“AI brings educational technology to an inflection point. We can either increase disparities or shrink them, depending on what we do now.”
—Dr. Russell Shilling

Dr. Andy Shean is the Chief Learning Officer at Penn Foster Group

At Penn Foster Group, we are transforming online learning to help learners by bringing together Penn Foster, CareerStep, Ashworth College, James Madison High School, the New York Institute of Photography, the New York Institute of Art and Design, and other education platforms. Together, we create an accelerated path to greater economic mobility through real-world skills and knowledge that enable them to achieve long-term success in the workplaces of the future. Our history dates back to 1890 when our founder, Thomas Foster, pioneered distance education by offering training by mail for coal miners to get the necessary skills for safer jobs. Today, with the partners who use our education and training programs, we continue that mission of providing accessible training and education for in-demand skills and are building a workforce that’s prepared for the future job market.  

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