Teachers and AI not mutually exclusive

ET talks to Matthew Glotzbach, CEO of Quizlet about the future of AI, machine learning and how Quizlet is taking its first steps into that sphere

How did the idea of Quizlet come about and how long has Quizlet been around?

Quizlet was initially an application that our founder, Andrew Sutherland, built to help him study for his French vocabulary test in high school. Other students liked it, so over time, it grew into a range of online study tools, starting with flashcards and other games, aimed at helping students learn any material. This year, we are celebrating Quizlet’s 10-year anniversary; more than 20 million people around the world study every month with Quizlet. 

What does Quizlet think about the role of artificial intelligence in education?

Artificial intelligence, and machine learning in particular, is playing a formative role across different domains. There is so much data available, and AI technology can be a great tool to help make sense of that data and use it to guide and refine learning technology. That said, I don’t think that we are approaching the era of robot tutors that could replace human teachers. I do think, however, that AI can help create more natural and adaptive ways for people to interact with technology.

The advances we’ve seen in natural language processing, speech to text, and text to speech technology (powered by AI techniques) for example, can play a big role in how students interact with learning tools. Similarly, we’ve seen major advances in language translation. We are now almost at a point where machine translation has reached the quality of human translation. As such, we are now entering an age where every educational text can be available to anyone in the world, no matter what their native language is. These are transformational advances in the accessibility of information, and allow “normal” people to interact with very powerful technology. 

How could artificial intelligence transform the traditional lesson format?

I think that AI technology will play an instrumental role in helping to adapt lessons to meet the needs of individual students. Just like YouTube and Facebook can use advanced techniques based on billions of data points to personalize my video recommendations or program news on my feed, AI can harness all the data from learning and studying to help personalize, adapt, and guide the learning experience of a student. I see it as another powerful tool to help instructors, professors, and teachers at every level to better guide their students’ learning.

How is Quizlet using these new capabilities in its own products?

Quizlet is investing heavily in machine learning and other AI techniques. With tens of millions of students practicing and mastering content on Quizlet, we have billions of anonymous data points on how people study. We have over 150 million study sets of user generated content, which is a rich source of high quality study material that we can get information from. We see what works and what doesn’t. We observe variances in effective study techniques and patterns based on the type of content — foreign language learning versus biology, for example. We are building a new platform, powered by machine learning, to leverage this enormous data set and then combine it with proven techniques from cognitive science to help guide students to more effectively practice and master the content they are learning. 

AI technology will play an instrumental role in helping to adapt lessons to meet the needs of individual students


How should students and teachers judge the efficacy of education products that use AI?

The same way they judge efficacy of any tool, technology, or technique, by answering the question “does it help students learn”? There is a great deal of discussion in the edtech environment about efficacy, and I think it’s very important that we are spending our time, and money, on efforts that really move student learning forward.  Ultimately, the goal of education must be to help students learn how to absorb knowledge effectively. Education is no longer just about instilling a set of core facts. Therefore, as we look at any tool in education, we need to answer some basic questions: Does it help students practice and master what they are learning? Does it keep them engaged and motivated to continue in their learning pursuit? And does it help instill in them best practices for studying and learning? AI-based technology is no different than any other in terms of how we should evaluate it, and it should be approached with cautious optimism. Ultimately, there is no “silver bullet” solution that will magically revolutionize the way people learn overnight. 

Do you think we’ll get to a place where computerized teachers or tutors can substitute for live teaching?

No — At least not in the foreseeable future. I often ask adults to think back to their time in school. What was the most formative experience? What are the things that really stand out as transformative? Almost everyone I ask that question recounts an experience with a teacher who inspired them, who challenged them, who understood them in a way that others didn’t. Learning is rooted in that deep personal connection with teachers, with peers and other students that ignites a spark of curiosity and imagination. Technology continues to leap forward to help kindle the fire, but the spark is still very human. So I think technology can and will play an ever increasing role as a tool to help students and teachers in their pursuit, but I don’t think it will replace human interactions.

What are your hopes for Quizlet? Where do you envision the company to be in five years, and how do you see AI leveraging its success?

Our ultimate goal is to have people all over the world use Quizlet to help them learn in a more engaging and effective way. We’re working on a new learning activity, which uses machine learning and proven techniques from cognitive science to help students learn in the most optimal way. Everyone can learn but not everyone knows how to learn. That’s where we come in.


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