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University to Use $20M Grant to Develop AI Education Tools

The funding will establish an Institute for Inclusive and Intelligent Technologies for Education on the Urbana-Champaign campus. The research focuses on non-cognitive learning skills among K-12 students.

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The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has secured $20 million to create AI tools that support “non-cognitive learning skills” like persistence, academic resilience and collaboration, the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) announced in a May 4 news release.

This award is the latest investment in the federal government’s $500 million initiative for AI innovation in education, infrastructure and technology. Funding comes from various federal departments and agencies, as well as from private-sector partner IBM.

With its grant, the university will establish the Institute for Inclusive and Intelligent Technologies for Education (INVITE).

“INVITE’s work will seek to reframe how learners interact with learning technologies by prioritizing approaches that consider the whole learner,” the statement reads.

That future research will focus on K-12 learning environments.

Non-cognitive skill refers to “a set of attitudes, behaviors and strategies thought to underpin success in school and at work.”

In an email to Government Technology, IES Commissioner of Education Research Elizabeth Albro said this project is threefold:

  • The first phase involves building large, shareable data sets that enable “fair and robust” machine learning as well as natural language understanding.
  • With a natural language processing mechanism in place, researchers and educators can then develop a model for measuring learners’ persistence, academic resilience and collaboration.
  • Under the third function, insights from the first two functions are used to create intelligent supports for STEM learning environments involving educators and learners in an institutional setting. These systems can detect and support student persistence, academic intelligence and collaboration. Researchers will determine whether these AI technology supports can improve academic achievement.

In a statement emailed to Government Technology, a National Science Foundation spokesperson added: “In other words, given this perspective, ‘evaluation’ is less about judging how well individual learners are performing, and more about gauging how well learning environments are serving the learners. So while the project will be developing methods to measure the persistence, academic resilience and collaboration skills learners exhibit while using certain kinds of interactive learning platforms, these measures should not be construed as measures of learners’ intrinsic capacities.”

The Illinois grant is the second AI institute funded by IES and NSF. Earlier this year, the University at Buffalo (UB) in New York state received $20 million to establish the National AI Institute for Exceptional Education, where research will be conducted to improve education outcomes for children with speech and language challenges. UB is developing an AI screener to enable universal early screening for all children, and an AI orchestrator to work with speech pathologists to provide individualized interventions for children within their formal Individualized Educational Plan (IEP).

“We are excited to partner with NSF on these two AI institutes,” Mark Schneider, IES director, said in the news release. “We hope that they will provide valuable insights into how to tap modern technologies to improve the education sciences — but more importantly we hope that they will lead to better student outcomes and identify ways to free up the time of teachers to deliver more informed individualized instruction for the students they care so much about.”
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.