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Opportunities in Digital Education – Interview with Prof. Dr. Niels Pinkwart, DFKI Berlin

| Learning & Education | Machine Learning & Deep Learning | Human-Machine Interaction | Educational Technology Lab | Berlin

Digital education is experiencing a boom thanks to Covid-19. In this interview, Prof. Dr. Niels Pinkwart talks about the opportunities Artificial Intelligence offers for digital education and introduces trendsetting projects for inclusive and personalized learning.

What do you say to your neighbors when they ask you what you do for a living?

I tell them that I am working on a very exciting interface – namely, one between digitalization and education. I am a researcher investigating the choices AI can offer in various contexts for certain learning and educational processes.


Digital education is not a new subject. What can AI contribute?

Digitalization and education have a long history together in different, interconnected ways. For example, computer science education has long been focused on sharing knowledge about digital technologies. Knowledge of AI technologies, which are affecting our lives in more and more different ways, is becoming more and more important to us all as human beings. We must all learn and understand what AI does to us, for us, and with us. AI is then seen as educational content. AI methods may also be viewed as educational media. The use of AI technologies in education gives us the chance to design learning scenarios much more efficiently, for example, by responding to the preferences and previous knowledge of an individual learner. Such scenarios demand completely new types of interfaces, which indeed cover things like stress during learning and emotions. The result is a learning experience and learning outcomes that are much more tangible.


About the teaching aspect of AI: DFKI is a partner in the AI Campus, a pilot project sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). What is your role personally and that of the Educational Technology Lab (EdTec)?

The AI Campus is a project that includes EdTec as well as other institutes and several DFKI research departments. Shortly after I started working at DFKI Berlin, I was given responsibility as the scientific director of the AI Campus project. The EdTec Lab has two functions at the AI Campus: Our lab is designing a course in AI and Leadership that will soon be produced and made available to the public. We are also researching the duality between educational content and medium and how AI can be used to add value to user interactions, for example, to improve the interactions with a chatbot. In the course of the chat, the user can express what the educational need is and receive a personalized course that consists of very different elements. These courses can be hosted on the AI Campus platform and may include external educational resources.


EdTec Lab is also working on the KI.ASSIST project. Can you briefly outline what that is all about?

KI.ASSIST is another exciting project that covers a very important aspect: Inclusion. The more educational scenarios become digitized, the more important it is to actually involve all people with all their individual characteristics, including possible disabilities. Learning systems must be designed that explicitly include everyone and, in particular, use the tools of AI to provide digital assistance services.

Simple AI aided systems are already in use to support visually impaired people, for example, through speech recognition and reading functions. Project KI.ASSIST is collecting established assistance systems for people with handicaps and working to develop application scenarios for vocational rehabilitation. We look at how people with and without disabilities can use AI-based systems. In the follow-on phase, we want to establish experimental learning spaces at partner facilities and workshops and look at how we can initiate transformative processes.


The Coronavirus crisis has apparently triggered a boom in digital education. What is your assessment? Do you think it is sustainable?

My team came up with the idea of setting up a webinar on short notice for Berlin's teachers, explaining the basics of online-teaching. Thanks to the Berlin Senate’s support, we had more than 2,000 registrations in two days. Ninety-five percent of the participants stated that they had never, or very rarely, worked with digital media in school before. The demand is great, as many schools initially had to deal with the emergency with ready solutions, such as scanning worksheets and sending them to the pupils by e-mail. To a certain extent, this runs counter to the AI-assisted teaching models where each student receives personalized feedback on their assignments.

In practice, we still have a long way to go. Yet, many teachers are now out of necessity forced to say: "We're going to find out how to use digital tools to design lessons." This is the case in schools and also in universities. We have been told in queries from Humboldt University that an estimated 90% of courses in this situation can be conducted digitally. The current momentum sweeping everyone along with it implies an enormous potential for change. The teachers who participated in the webinar found the insights to be inspiring and confirmed that their use of the technologies would definitely continue. It will certainly be similar at universities.

If one consequence of the corona crisis is a higher level of dissemination and acceptance of these technologies, the next steps will be personalization, automated recommendations for the next learning step, etc. Soon AI will offer additional functions that make life easier and learning even more pleasant and efficient. The hurdles are now lower since the teachers at schools and universities will certainly not set aside something once they have had a positive experience with it. The EdTec Lab hopes to be involved, of course, in an advisory capacity and as a partner for educational institutions in future research and industry projects.

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