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Integrating artificial intelligence to make online learning more engaging and effective

Project Status: Ongoing and under development

Article by: Ycenter design team  •   January 2021

Online learning is broken

We said it. You know it. The economy has evolved and become more complex than it was, a few years ago. The covid-19 pandemic has brought a huge shift in everything around us, right from healthcare to entertainment, from education to social connections (or lack thereof). Many of these shifts had started to occur pre-pandemic, but the pandemic accelerated these changes. Going from offering an in-dining experience to a safe and swift food delivery experience was about getting your technology right, your restaurant infrastructure right, getting your employees trained on understanding the online orders, getting your packaging right and getting your post-delivery follow-up right. Startups invested 100s of millions of dollars last few years trying to perfect this and 2020 was the year they soared with demand and high stock prices (stock markets have anyway drifted from reality these days, so not sure if product demand and stock prices are correlated that much).

But for education industry (yes it is a business and many are still in denial), going from in-person teaching to online learning, we did see many apps, websites and platforms trying to get it right since the last few years and it's a shame to say that even in 2020, the year they could have outshined and set up a new paradigm, they failed. Eventually a video conferencing company was the center point of the entire education industry. Most of the edtech platforms are so much about the platform and so little about working with teachers, packaging the course, post-program completion follow-up and many other things that we see in restaurants (delivery apps), transportation (ride-sharing apps, autonomous vehicles) and entertainment (Netflix, Disney+). There are a handful of the platforms that do standout from the lot like AltMBA by Seth Godin, but they are highly niche. Since we at Ycenter are in the business of solving complex business and social problems using design thinking, we decided to take this upon ourselves and see how we might make some difference to the world of education and technology.

How we got started

In March of 2017, Ycenter was conducting a 1 month long Agriculture entrepreneurship workshop in Kenya, Africa. While our team of facilitators from the USA and India were working with farmers and young entrepreneurs to create tech based solutions for agriculture problems. We got a request for a Design Thinking workshop in South America and another one with a refugee community in the Middle East. They were both exciting projects, but there was one problem. We had already committed to a program in Kenya and India in the next few weeks. So we told the organizers that we may not be able to run these workshops.

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However, they said they are open to running it virtually and the participants can also s elf study if our modules are online. I was long of the opinion that facilitating Design Thinking workshops or teaching Entrepreneurship online is a lost cause. We decided to look into existing solutions. The MOOCs (Massive open online courses) from top reputed universities that offer Entrepreneurship programs to self paced Design thinking programs to LIVE workshops which is basically someone speaking over a video call with maybe a ring light to their tech infrastructure in their home office.

Market research for edtech companies

Education and Learning is too important to be designed by people with only money and no imagination.

We did the market research for online learning. And for the sake of our research, we divided them into three categories
Category 1 - MOOC platforms - The ones that are offered by universities or academic leaders. MOOCs were a turning point in getting people affordable access to expensive courses from prestigious universities at a massive scale. It was also a twist in the business model for brick and mortar universities.
Category 2 - Marketplaces - These are websites that do not create courses, they offer a place to create and learn new courses for anyone, sometimes through a curated process and most of the other times without any due diligence.
Category 3 - Influencer based platforms - These are created by Marketing and Business leaders like Seth Godin or Instagram influencers, celebrities and others.

Edtech companies were using phrases like - we are here to democratize learning and help anyone get access to knowledge while breaking the barriers of time, money and location making it more affordable, accessible and flexible. This good intention has great potential but as one of our venture capitalist friends suggested (prefers to stay unnamed as he owns shares in a well known edtech company), Education and Learning is too important to be designed by people with only money and no imagination.

Market landscape

We picked a few platforms and deconstructed their user experience and features. Coursera, Udemy , LinkedIn learning (😐) , Skillshare, Edx , Code academy and a couple others which we don’t even think exist in 2021. We started rating them using three key components, besides other ancillary factors Content, Experience and Pricing.
Unlike the retail world, there is no Amazon.com or unlike the entertainment industry there was no Netflix, yet, for higher education. Many self proclaimed themselves to give themselves these titles, but none of them meet or beat the standards in terms of disruption, content or even experience.

Design thinking in action

Opportunity statements
We used our own Design thinking methodology to start building new ideas. The 2 opportunity statements that guided our design sprint were
1. How might we teach Design Thinking virtually while retaining its core values of being experiential?
2. How might we effectively teach Entrepreneurship virtually that can allow the participants to kickstart their own ventures at the end of the course?


The key word for both the statements was “virtually”. We have been facilitating these workshops offline through our in-person weekend workshops and entrepreneurship bootcamps. For us, it wasn’t just about recording a video and putting it online. It wasn’t about creating a slide deck and speaking into a camera lens. We had to think of community building, tutoring and mentoring help, knowledge branching (remember you go to the internet to look up yoga poses and then organically you end up learning about turmeric milk and indian chai with ginger, yup, that’s knowledge branching). We have to remember that participants have a much better control over what and how they learn when they are learning virtually, unlike classroom experience.

Breaking complexity
We broke down our complex problem into smaller parts. Here are the 2 essential parts to this problem.
The first small part was - How should we design the learning content for online consumption? Starkly different from how to adapt the offline learning for online consumption. The argument and analogy I make about this comparison is like Watching a movie on your tv v/s Watching a recorded play on your tv. For this part of the problem, we studied Instructional Design models like ADDIE Design model to Nine Events of Instruction by Robert Gagne for inspiration.
The second smaller part was - What tools and features we build for users to engage, effectively learn and continue to stay on the platform? For solving this part, we studied the UX and UI for mobile based apps like Uber, Netflix and Facebook to see if there are certain features that can be ported to education.

When faced with a complex problem, the first step is to break them into complex parts. And try to solve for the parts and not the whole problem. This is part of Ycenter’s design thinking philosophy, see this 1 minute video to get a sense of how we solve complex problems using design thinking.
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when community members are invested in the processes and products of research, dissemination and use of findings occur at higher rates within the community.

mood boarding

Netflix - Easy content search, content recommendations, clean interface
Twitter - Social connection through short messages, threaded communication, topics of interest searchable
Instagram - Visual medium, engagement, private chat, both verified content and ameteur content available, explore option
Uber - Minimal functionality to get everything done, tracking feature, support for customers
The key challenge is how do you translate all these into an effective edtech solution. One of the techniques we use in all our design thinking workshops is Cross-sectoral innovation. The idea is to learn and get inspired by positive and awesome features from a product, service, program or a company from one sector and port, adapt, modify it to solve a problem in a completely different sector, domain or industry.
For example:
How can we be inspired from Uber’s tracking real time feature to build a learning progress bar that inspires people to reach their weekly learning goals faster?
How can the chapter transitions in self-paced courses encourage people to jump to other chapters with as much ease as clicking the next episode while binging on Netflix?

Online learning is broken

The next step was to port the inspiration and create a user journey and mapping user emotions. The users include course creators, course takers, course graders and administrators. In edtech solutions, the tech comes later. We started looking at higher education content, delivery and testing. We limited ourselves to topics like Entrepreneurship, Business and Design thinking education. These are not hard science subject matter. A lot of it is taught using case studies, examples, peer to peer discussion and some theories made by famous management professors, entrepreneurs or pracademics (practitioner + academician).

While building user journeys and researching into everyday apps, we learned the power of sentiment analysis used to track online behavior of users. Five different task types that sentiment analysis has served within the domain were identified, namely:
(i) instruction evaluation,
(ii) institutional decision/policy making,
(iii) intelligent information/learning systems enhancement,
(iv) assignment evaluation and feedback improvement, and
(v) new research insights.
From a technical perspective, a brief explanation of the different sentiment analysis techniques along with representative examples are presented. The character of this work may address the needs of a diverse group of stakeholders, including educators, social sciences researchers as well as researchers, in natural language processing in education. Reference - Dolianiti F.S., Iakovakis D., Dias S.B., Hadjileontiadou S., Diniz J.A., Hadjileontiadis L. (2019) Sentiment Analysis Techniques and Applications in Education: A Survey. In: Tsitouridou M., A. Diniz J., Mikropoulos T. (eds) Technology and Innovation in Learning, Teaching and Education. TECH-EDU 2018. Communications in Computer and Information Science, vol 993. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-20954-4_31

The key was how to integrate the report and learning of these sentiments into your course creation and delivery, and make suggestions to students or to teachers to improve their experience. With proliferation of open AI tech stacks, we are now able to build conversational chatbots that immediately answer your questions. GPT3 powered applications can literally act as your business model writing companion (an AI bot for a co-founder is not very far in future).

Ycenter EPIC - An Experiential platform for Innovation and Creativity

The Ycenter chatbot uses the latest Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing technologies to replicate human interaction. The chatbot can understand human speech, recognize images, and respond helpfully on various topics. The Ycenter chatbot is like a human tutor who helps you in designing your curriculum. It helps you learn Entrepreneurship, Social Innovation and even writes a business plan for you.

"AI in education" is a phrase commonly used these days to cover all kinds of related technologies and applications. However, it is important to understand that it does not refer to any one technology and is best understood as something very general. We believe that AI can be used to teach the complex process of entrepreneurship to young people around the world. Data science could be applied to build AI assistants that can teach kids and entrepreneurs how to build their pitch deck, a critical step in helping entrepreneurs secure investment from venture capitalists. Its very important to note that, Entrepreneurship is not just about learning how to make a revenue model, how to code an application. It is so much about perseverance and grit. And while AI can handle complex subject topics, for now, the complex emotions and courage to pursue your dreams, is a gift acquired by humans. Let us continue pushing the boundaries of invention and innovation in education, but remembering that we also need to educate the hearts of young people and not just their brains (paraphrased from a Dalai Lama quote).

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