Using AI to Teach AI in Duke's Master of Engineering Degree Program

December 17, 2020

Duke is solving challenges in online education through a novel application of AI — the 'Intelligent Classroom Assistant'

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated the ongoing expansion of online learning across almost all higher education institutions globally, including Duke.  While online education offers the promise of making education more affordable, accessible and flexible for learners, it also presents unique challenges for instructors in delivering certain pedagogical methods.

Research in learning science over the last few decades has provided strong evidence that teaching practices such as mastery learning and 1:1 personalized tutoring coupled with regular formative assessments can significantly improve student outcomes from courses across the range of fields of learning by as much as two standard deviations . Yet it remains one of the most vexing problems in education that there is a tradeoff between scale and achievable quality of education: as class sizes grow larger, the ability of an instructor to provide the type of personalized guidance required to execute the most effective pedagogical methods is diminished. The faculty and students in Duke's AI for Product Innovation Master of Engineering (MEng) program are working to solve this problem through a novel application of artificial intelligence in the form of an "Intelligent Classroom Assistant" that uses machine learning to analyze patterns of student performance and extract insights for both instructors and learners to improve the class learning experience.

"The tool gave us insights on a level we never previously had to how well our students were grasping the various important topics covered in the course."

Jon Reifschneider
director, Duke AI for Product Innovation Master of Engineering program

Artificial intelligence is finding increasing use in almost every industry, and education is no exception. A 2020 study commissioned by Microsoft found that 99 percent of universities surveyed had plans to integrate AI into their operations within the next three years. The top use case identified for AI was to modernize learning in order to improve student engagement and outcomes.

Research efforts underway across a number of universities in recent years have made advances in the application of machine learning technology to analyze and predict student performance patterns. Yet many of these efforts have focused on analyzing historical data organized in well-curated reference datasets, rather than on the development of operational tools that instructors can use in-semester to support their teaching.

In summer 2020 Duke Engineering faculty member Jon Reifschneider, the director of Duke's AI for Product Innovation (AIPI) MEng program, set out to answer the question: "How can we use the tools of machine learning to extract insights from the ever-increasing amount of course data available online—recorded lectures, homework, electronic assessments, etc.—to inform instructors where each student is in their progression towards achieving the learning objectives of a course?"

If instructors have better visibility into what each student in their course has mastered to date and is struggling with at any point during a semester, they are in a much better position to deliver effective personalized guidance to each student. Likewise, such insights can help learners focus their time and efforts in reinforcing areas where they have not yet mastered the topics.

The research effort led to the development of a tool called the "Intelligent Classroom Assistant."  The tool reads in and analyzes data from electronically-submitted quizzes, homework and assessments and builds a map of how well each student has mastered each of the class topics covered to date.  To do so it utilizes a novel natural language processing and machine learning model developed as the backbone of the tool.  Although still under development at the time, the Intelligent Classroom Assistant was utilized by Professors Reifschneider and Daniel Egger in the AIPI 510 course they taught in Fall 2020.

"The tool gave us insights on a level we never previously had to how well our students were grasping the various important topics covered in the course," said Reifschneider.  "Since we were better able to understand where our students were in their learning each week, we were able to customize our class time and individual guidance sessions to focus on areas where it was clear from the data that reinforcement was needed."  

Work continues to further improve the performance of the algorithm behind the tool and the instructor interface, and the team is also testing it on data from two additional courses: another graduate engineering course and a large, 200-plus person undergraduate course.  It will be used as well this Spring in Reifschneider's AIPI 520 machine learning course.

The team also plans to add a student interface for students to view their own "mastery map" to better focus their studying efforts together with functionality to provide students with automated personalized recommendations for study resources to utilize.  The Intelligent Classroom Assistant is ultimately expected to become an important part of the Master of Engineering AIPI courses program, helping students to maximize their learning experience at Duke.

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