‘LearnLaunch’ Speakers See Artificial Intelligence, Learning Sciences Shaping Future of K-12

Associate Editor


Forces such as artificial intelligence and learning sciences are set to shape the future of education, even as thousands of people work on preparing K-12 education for a future that is largely uncharted, said speakers at an ed-tech innovation conference here.

The challenges of helping educators and students for a higher-tech age, while advancing sustainable educational technology, played out in various sessions of the fifth annual LearnLaunch Across Boundaries event held Thursday and Friday, which drew 1,100 attendees from 13 countries and 30 states.

“Machine intel is changing life at an unprecedented rate,” said Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart and a partner in Learn Capital , in opening remarks. “Our new task is to get kids ready for the novelty and complexity” this change promises, he said. Yet, as he visits schools all over the country, Vander Ark doesn’t hear this topic being discussed. (Vander Ark is also the author of a blog hosted on edweek.org titled Vander Ark on Innovation.)

“Educational transformation” is one of the prescriptions for adapting to the advent of artificial intelligence, said Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, and author of “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.”

“We should not be educating people for things machines do well,” such as following rote instructions in great detail and memorizing facts, he said. Humans still hold an advantage in creativity, unstructured problem solving, and empathizing with one another.

Investments in education should focus more on teaching creativity, interpersonal skills, teamwork, planning, caring, motivating, and leadership. “That’s a new way to think about education…that we don’t see as much in schools as we could,” he said. Part of his prescription is to enlist educational technologies to help identify relative strengths and weaknesses of individual students and personalize their learning on a path to capitalize on their strengths, Brynjolfsson said.

At the same time, “it can be counterproductive to overestimate what machines can do right now,” he said. “There’s no shortage of work to be done in our economy today in education, in healthcare, in cleaning the environment. These are things only humans can do and will be able to do in the next 10, 15, 20 years. I’d like us to focus more on re-skilling people to do those kinds of tasks, because there’s plenty of them.”

Evolving Role of Neuroscience

On the learning sciences front, John Gabrieli, a professor of health sciences and technology and cognitive neuroscience at MIT, said “we’re several steps away from directly applying” neuroscience to education.

Brain studies, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, show promise, but aren’t applicable to education yet, he said.

However, from the psychological side of learning sciences, a 2007 study found that people retain learning better after they study and take a practice test, compared with studying the same material on two separate occasions, then taking a test.In fact, occasional quizzes, or “interpolated testing,” produce a 27 percent increase in the long-term retention of knowledge.

That learning science research, which was conducted on adults on behalf of a company that wanted to know about training, reinforces the value of formative assessments in schools, Gabrieli suggested. Taking a test after studying material, and before a final assessment, “really drives long-term memory,” he said.


The two-day conference, which attracted entrepreneurs and educators, investors and developers, is sponsored by LearnLaunch–which operates a startup accelerator, an institute and co-working space in a campus in Boston–and the MIT Office of Digital Learning.

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