By Eric Wearne
School systems have debated the use of technology in the classroom for years. Several stories, from Education Week and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, covered the topic just this summer. Both point out that we still don’t quite know the most effective strategies for technology in the classroom. But two new research projects might bear some fruit and lead us in some new directions.
Inquire bills itself as “A prototype of an intelligent textbook that answers students’ questions, engages their interest, and improves their understanding.” The short version of that is that Inquire is an iPad app that takes the popular Campbell Biology textbook and adds artificial intelligence (AI) technology to help students make it more powerful.
Using Inquire, students can simply read the book, as they have done for years. They can also make highlights, see popup definitions of words, and make notes in the margins. Those are all higher-tech versions of what students can already do with paper books. Inquires real power is in its AI function: students can ask the book questions, and the software will provide relevant answers, in a clear format.
Inquire is one part of a bigger project being explored by a company called Vulcan, Inc. Project Halo is …a staged, long-range research effort by Vulcan Inc. towards the development of a “Digital Aristotle”—a reasoning system capable of answering novel questions and solving advanced problems in a broad range of scientific disciplines and related human affairs. The project focuses on creating two primary functions: a tutor capable of instructing and assessing students in those subjects, and a research assistant with broad, interdisciplinary skills to help scientists and others in their work.
Will Inquire increase student learning? Will Project Halo even work? It’s too early to say for sure, but the possibilities for online learning opened up by having a personalized AI tutor at home are obvious. We may also be seeing a new concept emerging through Inquire and Project Halo that would give practical guidance to brick and mortar schools – instead of finding ways for students to use the full internet through iPads or phones or other devices, and fighting a constant battle to channel students to appropriate content and block inappropriate content, Inquire and Project Halo have created new functionality to existing content, and providing students access to huge amounts of new information, while at the same time ensuring relevance to their studies.
(Eric Wearne is a Georgia Public Policy Foundation Senior Fellow and Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education. Previously he was Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.)