The AI teaching assistant

Back in 2016, a professor teaching an online course about artificial intelligence developed a program that he called an AI teaching assistant. The program was given a name (“Jill Watson”) and referred to as “she.” A TEDx Talk video was published that same year.

A 2016 video features Professor Ashok Goel, who developed the “Jill Watson” teaching assistant.

In my recent reading about AI, I’ve found this case mentioned quite often. Sometimes it is generalized to imply that AI teaching assistants are in common use. Another implication is that AI teaching assistants (or even full-fledged AI teachers) are the solution to many challenges in K–12 education.

I wanted to get a better idea of what’s really going on, so I did a search at Google Scholar for “AI teaching assistant” (on March 16, 2022). I got “about 194 results,” which was more than I wanted to look at as search-result pages, so I downloaded 200 results using SerpApi and organized them in a spreadsheet. After eliminating duplicates, I read the titles and the snippets (brief text provided in the search results). I marked all items that appeared relevant — including many that are broadly about AI in education, but eliminating all those focused on how to teach about AI. I ended with 84 articles to examine more closely.

Quite a lot of these refer to the “Jill Watson” program. Many of the articles are speculative, describing potential uses of AI in education (including but not limited to virtual TAs), and contain no empirical research. Few of them could be considered useful for learning about AI teaching assistants — most of the authors have indicated no experience with using any AI teaching assistant themselves, let alone training one or programming one. Thus in most of the articles, the performance of an actual AI teaching assistant was not evaluated and was not even observed.

Kabudi, Pappas and Olsen (2021) conducted a much more rigorous search than mine. They analyzed 147 journal articles and conference presentations (from a total of 1,864 retrieved) about AI-enabled adaptive learning systems, including but not limited to intelligent tutoring systems. The papers were published from 2014 through 2020.

“There are few studies of AI-enabled learning systems implemented in educational settings,” they wrote (p. 2). The authors saw “a discrepancy between what an AI-enabled learning intervention can do and how it is actually utilised in practice. Arguably, users do not understand how to extensively use such systems, or such systems do not actually overcome complex challenges in practice, as the literature claims” (p. 7).

My interest in AI teaching assistants centers on whether I should devote attention to them in a survey course about artificial intelligence as it is used today. My conclusion is that much has been written about the possibilities of using “robot teachers,” intelligent tutoring systems, “teacherbots,” or virtual learning companions — but in fact the appearances of such systems in real classrooms (physical or online) with real students have been very few.

If classrooms are using commercial versions of AI teaching assistants, there is a lack of published research that evaluates the results or the students’ attitudes toward the experience.

Further reading

For an overview of recent research about AI in education, see: AI-enabled adaptive learning systems: A systematic mapping of the literature, an open-access article. This is the study referred to above as Kabudi, Pappas and Olsen (2021).

Another good resource is AI and education: Guidance for policy makers (2021), a 50-page white paper from UNESCO; free download.


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