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2021 in Ed Tech: AI, Data Analytics Were Top Priorities

Growing interest in artificial intelligence tools and data analytics were among the dominant trends in education technology in both K-12 and higher education this year, according to industry leaders.

Technology in education
The last 12 months were a time of experimentation for both K-12 and higher education institutions. Flush with new federal funding but straining against disruptions such as COVID-19 and rampant cyber threats, schools adapted with help from ed-tech companies, nonprofits and other industry partners to meet a growing demand for flexible online learning options, as well as to improve student performance and tackle learning loss that resulted from last year's school closures.

For school districts, colleges and universities, often this work included efforts to close the digital divide and distribute tablets and laptops; start coding boot camps and other training programs to prepare the future workforce for new technologies; and make cybersecurity investments and study programs to create a bulwark of infrastructure and skills against cyber criminals.

For ed-tech companies and industry leaders helping schools through this, much of the focus was on student data and AI-driven programs designed to assist with lesson planning, student feedback and educational content.

Google Cloud Head of Education Steven Butschi told Government Technology that instructors across grade levels have grown more interested in using AI-driven ed-tech tools to close achievement gaps made worse by shifting to and from remote learning. Citing a study this year from Google and Boston Consulting Group, he said 90 percent of college-level educators expressed a need for enhanced technology to meet the growing demand for flexible tutoring.

Along those lines, Google announced the creation of an AI tutor last month to provide students with personalized feedback on assignments, academic coaching and course advisement. It was as an expansion of Google’s Student Success Services, a software suite released in 2020, which includes virtual assistant functions, analytics, enrollment algorithms and other higher ed applications.

“They all are thinking about how we can make learning more personalized, aligning it to when you need it for access 24/7, and using data more effectively to engage students,” Butschi said. “As you think about that, it starts to tee up to why we’re seeing data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning to personalize and gauge learning starting to pop up more and more.

“Now we’re starting to see this is opening up, where we’re having asynchronous and synchronous learning. We’re having hybrid learning,” he continued. “The AI tutors are complementing in-person and professor-led learning.”

According to a recent report from Market Research Engine, the global market for artificial intelligence in education technology will reach $5.80 billion by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate of 45 percent.

Neil Heffernan, a computer science professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and lead developer of the AI-based student feedback program ASSISTments, said this projected growth is partly to do with AI’s potential to identify and address areas in need of improvement and help close achievement gaps.

He said ASSISTment’s AI feature Quick-Comments won an $8 million grant last week from the U.S. Department of Education's Education Innovation and Research program to improve its machine-learning tutoring functions.

“What we want to do is find out which human tutors are doing a good job, look at what they’re doing, and put that back into the computer so that when no humans are around, we can have the program doing that,” he said. “When we have the computer doing that, we can measure how they do on the next problem.”

While AI is helping schools with tutoring and curricula, new data management systems are streamlining the collection and storage of student performance data to identify and address areas where improvement is needed. The aim is to make the data more readable and enable data systems to integrate with learning management systems (LMS) like Google Classroom and Canvas that have only become more commonplace in K-12 during COVID-19.

Over the past year, K-12 districts and state education officials have worked with organizations such as the analytics nonprofit Ed-Fi Alliance and adopted tools like the Apigee API platform from Google Cloud to standardize data systems and make them interoperable.

Trenton Goble, VP of K-12 Strategy at Instructure, said schools need student performance data that can "flow into a data warehouse environment with clear and easy-to-use reporting" and gauge the impact of remote learning.

“As schools went back to a face-to-face environment this fall, we saw a lot of interest in assessments,” he said. "Assessments only have value insofar as teachers are using the data, so being able to present data in a meaningful way is a big trend."

Goble said the adoption of Instructure’s Canvas LMS has witnessed a lot of “significant growth” during this year, as schools slowly made the transition to using LMS for lower elementary grade levels following last year’s first closures.

He said one of the main advantages of Canvas has been its ability to integrate new digital learning tools into the LMS, noting the emergence of new AI-driven ed-tech products marketed to educators overwhelmed with choices in an ever-growing market.

“We’ve always been open and extensible as a platform. Our ability to allow third-party resources to integrate into the LMS is vital. The ability to integrate is, I think, key. It’s an expectation at this point,” he said, as schools are becoming more sophisticated in working with new technologies. “[Choosing the right tools] is the toughest element for school districts. For districts that want to be open in allowing teachers to find their own tools in the K-12 space, you want those tools to integrate into the LMS."


In addition to the increased focus on AI and data tools within K-12 and higher ed spaces, educators have also shown an interest in virtual and augmented reality programs featuring content for immersive lessons that can keep students engaged.

According to a recent report from the policy think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, AR/VR technology could prove a “promising addition” to digital learning toolkits at schools and universities, eventually.

Ellysse Dick, a policy analyst from ITIF and author of the report, said AR/VR programs enable experiential lessons that might make up for learning loss that occurred over the past two years.

“A virtual field trip isn’t a full replacement for a real-life field trip, but for those students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to visit places that might be a bus ride away for others, VR can give them opportunities to experience some of those things,” she told Government Technology in September.

But while AR and VR tools and the “gamification" of learning have garnered interest in schools, Google's Butschi reiterated that "data analytics and AI are top priorities” when it comes to tracking and improving grades.

Heffernan also said this year’s focus on machine learning in ed tech eclipsed AR/VR, which he said "continues to be totally sexy and totally oversold." He expects this trend to continue into 2022 as ed-tech developers and researchers make improvements to AI's capabilities.

“When some people think about AI, they think too much about Hollywood and computers taking over, and I’m not worried about that at all because I know [today’s] systems are really dumb,” he said, noting that AI has already helped teachers do their jobs more effectively despite current limitations.
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.