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Google Announces AI for Individualized Tutoring and Advising

This week, the tech company announced a new AI-driven tutor platform that uses competency assessments by educators to generate quizzes, course recommendations and other guidance specially tailored to a student’s needs.

Amid advancements in the field of machine learning, ed-tech companies have been building artificial intelligence into platforms to provide students with homework feedback and instructors with content management services, among other applications. Noting a growing interest in AI’s potential uses in schools, Google has announced a new interactive AI tutor platform that can give students personalized feedback, assignments and guidance.

On Google Cloud’s blog this week, the company's Head of Education Steven Butschi described the product as an expansion of Student Success Services, Google’s software suite released last year that includes virtual assistants, analytics, enrollment algorithms and other applications for higher ed. He said the new AI tutor platform collects “competency skills graphs” made by educators, then uses AI to generate learning activities, such as short-answer or multiple-choice questions, which students can access on an app. The platform also includes applications that can chat with students, provide coaching for reading comprehension and writing, and advise them on academic course plans based on their prior knowledge, career goals and interests.

In an interview with Government Technology, Butschi said the platform is effective at providing on-demand tutoring that’s often unavailable to students otherwise, due to cost or time constraints, potentially saving universities considerable staff time.

“We know that with humans, and one professor and multiple students, that’s unlikely to happen — to get that interactive and personalized response at any time of the day or night, and at that scale,” he said. “It’s allowing students to practice more skills outside of the classroom, hone their learning a bit and get more personalized insights on where they can adjust or learn new skills.”

Developing the AI tutor involved partnerships with schools such as Walden University in Minnesota, where educators used it to build their own interactive AI tutor dubbed “Julian.” Walden’s Chief Transformation Officer Steven Tom called Google’s AI tutor a “breakthrough” that makes tutoring exercises engaging and accessible.

“As we continue to develop this tool, it will allow us to provide personalized instruction at scale to meet the needs and busy lives of adult learners,” Tom said in a public statement.

Another institution to test the new platform was Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), which used it to give students personalized course recommendations based on their aptitudes and skill sets.

Travis Willard, SNHU’s chief product officer, said the school’s development partnership with Google is producing a system of software tools that support “learner centricity” — tailoring a student’s study materials and credential programs to their individual needs and skills. This stands in contrast with a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction that some educators feel is antiquated and ineffective.

“We are building this ecosystem for a personalized, flexible learner experience that is not tied to seat time and focuses on stackable micro-credentials creating options for our learners that stack on top of the degrees the university offers today. This enables them to get skills they need for the jobs they want today and continue pursuing the degree that opens even more career options in the future,” Willard said in an email to Government Technology. “We’re extending the Google platform to create an AI engine that assists students as they earn college credit for their achievements outside the classroom. It’s a difficult problem to solve and many have tried. Innovation means that we will learn more from any potential mistakes than from successes.”

Butschi said Google’s AI platform stands out due to an ability to be easily integrated into existing tech infrastructure, and being more customizable than many other AI offerings in the ever-growing ed-tech market.

“Some of those other AI tools are considered SaaS-based products,” he said. “You just plug this in, and you go.”

Despite equity and efficacy concerns related to AI’s potential for replicating human biases, Butschi said partner institutions piloting the tool can identify and address issues early through trial and error. He said it can take months to ensure careful development of AI for more complex use cases.

He said how Google deploys the AI platform with new clients, and what functions it will have, will depend on what the client wants from it, as well as how much time they put into developing the AI and its data sets to ensure efficacy.

“It really depends on the depth and the breadth of what they want the AI to do, both in terms of the amount of content they want with the tutor, as well as the types of interactions they want with it,” he said, noting that it’s customizable for applications in K-12 and higher education. “Institutions are saying, ‘We’ve gone a step in the right direction, and we want to continue to add onto that.’”

According to Google Cloud’s blog, the company is working with ed-tech developer LearningMate to integrate Google’s AI into LearningMate’s content management system Frost, with the aim of preparing the system for further developments and spreading its use to other institutions.

“We see a profound shift in education, with new technologies opening up educational opportunities to more people and communities. AI-powered learning solutions will play a key role in this digital transformation, helping institutions, educators and ed-tech companies empower students to learn and achieve more,” LerningMate co-founder Nachiket Paratkar said in a public statement.

Butschi said students have come to expect technology that supports individualized learning that’s flexible with their schedules, and AI will play a major role in that — and in schools’ ongoing digitization efforts in general.

“We’re finding, from the pandemic, there’s been much more interest and appetite for trying new things around technology, and then seeing what works and what doesn’t and iterating from there,” he said.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.