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How can Artificial Intelligence in online learning support emotional and social development?

Dean Blewitt Dean Blewitt Learning Innovation Manager at NCFE

In reacting to COVID-19, the priority for education providers was ensuring face-to-face learning and assessment activities were transitioned to an online environment (Hill, 2020). In doing so, practitioners may have lacked the capacity to consider the implications an online environment might have on the emotional and social development of learners (Heitz, Laboissiere, Sanghvi, & Sarakatsannis, 2020).  

From my own experience of transitioning to the online world, I have certainly missed some aspects of in-person working, and I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for students going from classrooms of 20 – 30 peers to online sessions or recordings where cameras and microphones were routinely turned off. 

As a school governor, I found that whilst some learners thrived under the remote circumstances, many struggled to adapt to this new way of teaching and learning. This view is supported by anecdotal evidence which suggests that many learners experienced feelings of isolation and demotivation as the rapid transition to online learning was made (Hall & Batty, 2020; Turner, 2020).  

Using AI in learning and feedback  

As we work towards a future where artificial intelligence (AI) is commonplace in education settings, the question is, how can we best use it to support learners academically, emotionally, and socially? One solution that could be beneficial in supporting learners is by providing online assessment feedback via AI.

Feedback is already well-evidenced as one of the most efficient and cost-effective methods of supporting learning outcomes – however, it is important to note that feedback is most effective when coming from the learner’s teacher or practitioner (EEF, 2021). Written or typed text is one of the more efficient ways to provide feedback and is the preferred method when using digital technology, but research suggests that online students feel more supported and motivated when feedback is via personalised video recordings (Mahoney, Macfarlane, & Ajjawi, 2019).  

Although personalised video feedback can benefit learners, my own experience as a maths teacher (and failed attempts at recording feedback on YouTube) tells me that it can be time consuming and difficult to capture. Balancing personalised video feedback with planning lessons, delivery, intervention, tracking progress and the other administrative duties, it’s easy to understand why written feedback is preferred.  

Implementing AI as a real-world solution 

However, with the advancement of both AI avatars (imagine yourself, but virtual) and Natural Language Processing (technology that allows for open text to be understood and marked by AI), it’s feasible to picture a future where the formative and summative assessment process is largely automated. These developments mean that assessments could be auto marked by AI, with tutors supplementing and personalising the AI feedback which is generated.  

Once generated, tutors could submit the feedback as text where suitable for accuracy, or as an AI avatar, which converts the feedback text to a video message, in any language. The AI avatar presents as a digital version of the learner’s tutor, allowing the learner to retain a personal connection with the tutor and still feel supported and motivated (Mahoney, Macfarlane, & Ajjawi, 2019).  

This development could support learners’ emotional and social development by supplementing areas where digital text is inadequate. For example, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. The learner would be able to receive regular feedback and support that is comparable to the classroom environment. 

Taken a step further, the AI data could be automated into provider systems for data capture requirements and used to produce meaningful reporting for learners, parents, practitioners, and senior leaders, further supporting in reducing practitioner workload and administrative duties which many practitioners cite as areas of stress and unhappiness (Teacher Tapp, 2021). 

Looking to the future 

The disruption of traditional methods of teaching and learning has led to a focus on how digital technology such as AI can better support learners academically, emotionally, and socially. Although there is still a considerable amount of work in developing, testing, and ensuring suitability (ethically and pedagogically), the future is extremely exciting.  

We, the Assessment Innovation Team at NCFE, are seeing large scale piloting and adoption of new digital technology being adapted in ways that better meet the needs of learners and educators today. Colleges, training providers and Ed-Tech organisations that are planning to further develop these approaches have applied to our Assessment Innovation Fund, which is now in its third funding window.  

The Assessment Innovation Fund offers successful applicants up to £100,000 to collaborate on piloting innovative approaches to assessment across the learner journey. Some of the successful applicants so far include The Sheffield College, The Really NEET Project, and the University of Newcastle (Australia). They all have intriguingly different ideas, but one thing in common – the desire to transform the learning and assessment experience. 

We’re looking forward to continuing to support the sector in making innovative progress, and we hope our Assessment Innovation Fund acts as a catalyst for change by providing evidence-based, alternative assessment solutions. 

Find out more about our Assessment Innovation Fund and how to apply.

We’re looking forward to continuing to support the sector in making innovative progress, and we hope our Assessment Innovation Fund acts as a catalyst for change by providing evidence-based, alternative assessment solutions.

Dean Blewitt, Learning Innovation Manager, NCFE
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