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One Plus One Equals Fun:

How AI is Adding Up to Personalized Learning

Chris Rush, Co-Founder and Chief Program Officer for New Classrooms

One of the primary goals of education is for students to learn as much as possible and reach their highest potential. That is often not easy to achieve when teachers have so much on their plates that they can not focus on all of their students the way they would like. Since we cannot create more time in a day, we have to come up with a more efficient way to do things. Thanks to New Classrooms, there is a more systematic way to optimize learning. Chris Rush, Co-Founder and Chief Program Officer of New Classrooms, has collaborated with a team of “professional geeks” to develop Math programming that is guaranteed to bring out the personal genius in students everywhere.

Tamara: Can you share a story that inspired you to get involved in AI?

Chris: Several years ago, I was conducting a professional development session with a room full of teachers in Chicago. The session was to end at 2:30pm, but at 2:29pm, a teacher raised her hand to ask an important question. I began to answer the question, but when the bell rang at 2:30pm, the very same teacher got up and walked out on her own question. I approached her later to ask why she didn’t stay to hear the response and she said, “I just have so much work to do for my students that I have to set boundaries on my time so that I can get it all done.”

This teacher was expressing what I have heard from educators across the country – that the demand we put on our teachers is overwhelming and they are struggling to meet the basic needs of all of their students. Something needs to change so we can ensure that committed teachers are staying in the classroom and students are getting the best education possible.

We have to create a more sustainable working environment for teachers and this is where AI can play a role. If we figure out what we can automate for teachers so they aren’t spending their precious time creating schedules and grading assessments, they can spend more time supporting students where they need help and building meaningful relationships. This will not only lead to better student outcomes, but will make the teaching profession more attractive and sustainable for our nation’s best educators.

Tamara: Describe your company and the AI/predictive analytics/data analytics products/services you offer.

Chris: New Classrooms is a nonprofit organization that is harnessing the power of technology coupled with research and development to revitalize public schools to meet the personal needs of every student. We are reimagining what, when, where, and how students learn to best challenge them and meet their needs. For many students, school is conducted today the same way it was decades ago. Today’s students come to school with a wide variety of abilities and needs. In a typical math class, for example, a teacher follows the assigned lesson and students work in isolation through the material. As a result, some students feel unchallenged and others can’t catch up in time to succeed. This creates a challenge for teachers as well who are unlikely to have the capacity to work with each student. We can and should do better.

New Classrooms is reinventing what future classrooms look like by using technology and AI to redesign the school experience for students and teachers, starting with math. Teach to One: Math, a learning model designed by New Classrooms, analyzes real-time data to customize daily schedules for both students and teachers by prioritizing the instructional content a student needs based on their understanding of a topic. The algorithm uses predictive analytics to group and schedule students and can be changed based on the unique needs of each school.

Tamara: How do you see the AI/data analytics/predictive analysis industry evolving in the future?

Chris: Specific to education, we’ll need to figure out ways to leverage AI in the classroom that makes teachers more effective at their jobs and doesn’t create an additional burden for educators. I imagine that AI will evolve so that it will be a critical day-to-day tool for teachers that is as easy to use and ubiquitous as email.

For example, when a student raises his or her hand because of confusion about a question, a teacher can spend several minutes or more diagnosing what a student doesn’t understand before she can help that student. Using AI and data analysis, imagine a classroom experience in which a teacher can pull up a dashboard on that student, see immediately the concepts he or she has mastered and hone in precisely on where the student needs help. This will create a less frustrating experience for both student and teacher and has the ability to free up a teacher’s most precious resource – time – so that the teacher can provide individualized support to more students.

Tamara: What is the biggest challenge facing the industry today in your opinion?

Chris: So many students come into classrooms with varied skills and knowledge. Whether it’s because they had an ineffective teacher, were struggling with a personal issue at home that affected their school performance, or they just never grasped foundational concepts before the teacher had to move on to the next lesson, students are unprepared in so many different ways to tackle the coursework in front of them. This leaves teachers working overtime – many regularly putting in 16 hour days or more. Not only does this affect student achievement, but it creates an unsustainable working environment for our educators that must be addressed.

Tamara: How do you see your products/services evolving going forward?

Chris: Similar to how Google search has improved over time, as we serve more and more students using our program, the algorithms will get smarter about using past experiences to create the best individual program for students. For example, instead of a teacher having to spend precious time understanding exactly what a student doesn’t understand before she can helping with the problem, the teacher will be able to pull up a dashboard that shows which concepts the students have demonstrated mastery of so there can be focused support on those skills that still need attention and development.

We also believe that AI can help us focus our program on development of students’ social and emotional skills – skills such as teamwork, self-direction, perseverance, and communication. As educators, developing these skills is just as important as developing students’ ability to do math. AI can help us identify students’ social and emotional strengths and areas where we can provide additional support.

Tamara: What is your favorite AI movie and why?

Chris: I really like the Spike Jonze’s movie, Her, about a man that develops a relationship with an intelligent operating system personified through a female voice. It shows the more humanistic side of AI.

Tamara: What type of advice would you give my readers about AI?

Chris: There’s a tendency for Hollywood to sensationalize the dangers and worst case scenarios of AI in a way that makes people uncomfortable with the everyday applications of it. My advice would be to not let the Hollywood stereotypes dictate how we think about AI, which has tremendous potential to be a force for good. When we’re using AI in schools, we’re not talking about robots replacing teachers, but making teachers’ jobs more manageable. The best teachers are the ones that have lots of experience and can draw on that experience when dealing with individual student challenges. If we’re harnessing the power of AI, we can bring that master experience to every teacher.

Tamara: How does AI, particularly your product/service, bring goodness to the world? Can you explain how you help people?

Chris: New Classrooms is using AI to personalize learning in a way that has never been done before. We were born out of work started in New York City public schools and we have grown to work with students, teachers and schools all over the country. We believe that every student can master academic concepts with the right support. We are leveraging AI to create an interactive, student-centered experience that helps prepare students for college and life.

We’re also helping teachers be more effective and satisfied with their jobs, which will lead to longer teacher tenure and more experienced teachers in our nation’s classrooms. Our technology empowers teachers to focus on supporting individual students’ needs rather than the administrative tasks of creating schedules, individualized lessons, and assessments for students. It helps teachers do what they set out to do when entering the profession – create pathways for every student to be successful, regardless of their starting point.

Tamara: What would be the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you during your company’s evolution?

Chris: When we were early in our evolution, we rolled out the program in partnership with a school in Colorado. The program was going well, but because we were able to design a math experience for students that personalized for their skill level, many of the honors students were being challenged for the first time. They were struggling, even though they were working beyond their grade level. Parents began pushing back on the school and the school responded by pulling these honor students from the program.

A few staff from New Classrooms were out there to support the school when three of the honors kids pulled us aside to tell us that even though they found the program really challenging, they were actually enjoying the challenge. They asked us to develop a feature that demonstrated to their parents and the school that they had mastered their sixth-grade skills so that they could continue to work on more advanced coursework.

Our team quickly got to work. We mocked up a way to do this in a week, shared it with the school, and the students were able to demonstrate their competency. Once they did that, they went back to their parents and school and asked to be put back in the program.

That’s when I realized that schools were accustomed to responding to parent concerns, but we had an opportunity to give power back to the students. By listening to the students, we were able to develop a feature that is now being used by all of our school partners nationwide.

Tamara: What are the 3-5 things that most excite you about AI? Why? (industry specific)

Chris:

  1. AI has to ability to personalize a student’s educational experience to meet the needs of students who otherwise might not get their needs met in the traditional classroom setting. This will help us ensure that students are accessing what they need to learn when they’re ready to learn it.

  2. AI can bring the experience of a master teacher into every classroom by using past experiences to get smarter about future decision-making for students.

  3. AI will make students’ and teachers’ lives better. By automating that which can be automated – scheduling, assessments, grouping of students based on needs – teachers can focus more of their energy on building relationships with students so they can best support their individual needs.

Tamara: What are the 3-5 things worry you about AI? Why? (industry specific)

Chris:

  1. As we consider how to leverage AI in the classroom, we can’t devalue the role of the teacher. AI must be thought of as a tool to help teachers be more effective at their jobs, not replace them.

  2. It can sometimes be too easy to rely on technology to the neglect of our human judgement. In the classroom, we must be cautious to keep technology as a tool and not blindly follow it without ever questioning its decision-making.

  3. I worry that people will hold an unrealistic standard of perfection for AI in the classroom, rather than a standard of improvement. There will be failures during the R&D process, but I would caution developers and educators about giving up too early on something that has the potential to dramatically impact the student and teacher experience.

Tamara: Over the next three years, name at least one thing that we can expect in the future related to AI?

Chris: I believe we’ll begin to see virtual assistants for teachers, like an Alexa for schools. Rather than playing music or telling us the weather, these assistants can help students when they are stuck with concepts. For example, if a student is struggling with an algebra problem, a virtual teacher’s assistant could help identify the concept that is causing the confusion and provide a lesson in that concept. Once the student has demonstrated mastery of the foundational concept, they can work their way through the original problem.

For teachers, this assistant could help identify patterns in students’ work to inform a teacher how to provide targeted support for a student where he or she needs it most. 

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