University Business February 2018 - 8

OnTopic

Q&A with Charles Isbell
By Tim Goral

Autonomous agents of change
How artificial intelligence will revolutionize online learning

Charles Isbell's research passion is
artificial intelligence, or AI. The
senior associate dean for Georgia
Tech's College of Computing focuses
on building "autonomous agents,"
or programs that can interact with
large numbers of other intelligent
agents, including humans. These
agents collect data and "observe"
how students behave in online
learning tasks, and then customize
the content and delivery of material
for greater student success.
Isbell was one of the founders of
Georgia Tech's Online Master of
Science in Computer Science, the
first accredited degree that students
can earn exclusively through a
MOOC platform. As a UBTech
keynote speaker in Las Vegas this
June, Isbell will discuss the evolution of the online MS program and
the important role AI will play in
education equity.

UBmag.me/agents

8 | February 2018

How did you get started researching
artificial intelligence and online
learning?
It's a confluence of two things. First,
my Georgia Tech colleagues and I
were motivated by the idea of building
intelligent things. Later, we were motivated by the idea that human beings
are actually a fundamental part of
that loop. That's the tie-in to AI.
Much of the initial work with AI
was about trying to capture what it
means to be human. More recently,
there's been a swing toward thinking
that what it means to be intelligent
has a lot to do with interacting with
people, or at least other intelligent
beings. That drive of thinking about
people's needs pushed a bunch of us
in the same direction.
At the same time, we saw the explosion of Udacity, Coursera, edX,
and so on. These two things come together in a fantastic living experiment.
At the root, it's about the potential of
online education to help with problems of access and to reach people
who currently aren't being reached,
but who are capable.
Online learning was supposed to
revolutionize education, but it still
gets mixed results.
There was a lot of hype that developed
around that but I think now we can
actually begin to live up to the promise. The dream, as it was expressed
in the beginning, was about equality:
"We're going to make all this stuff
available to everybody on the planet."
We've gotten to the point now, in a
relatively short period of time, where

we can start thinking about equity,
which is different, right? Equality is
about treating everyone the same, giving everyone access to the same things.
Equity is about giving people what
they need in order to succeed. What
we have is a technology that can allow
for equality. And what we need is software technology, intelligent distribution of the resources and support that
will actually allow for equity.
So your aim is to integrate AI to
online courses so that it can improve the way a student learns?
Right. There's two different ways AI
can help in this space. One is what
you might think of as good, old-fashioned AI-answering questions for
people and giving them a better understanding of questions they might
be looking for.
For example, one of our teams is
working on a project that has to do
with people asking questions in these
big online forums. When you have
got hundreds of people interacting
with one another in a forum, people
miss questions or the same question
is asked at different times by many
people. It can get very confusing.
This project will figure out that the
question that is being asked has been
answered or discussed in some detail
already, and the program will push
people toward that conversation.
Think of it as a very smart, automatic, behind-the-scenes search agent
driven by questions around a particular class or course.
The other way AI helps is more of
what you would think of as big data
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