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Podcast: How Artificial Intelligence can Reinforce Learning in the Classroom

Podcast featuring Dr. Wanda CurleeProgram DirectorSchool of Business and
Dr. Kathleen Shriver, Faculty Member, School of Business

How can artificial intelligence help reinforce students’ learning? In this episode, Dr. Wanda Curlee talks to AMU business professor Dr. Kathleen Shriver about how AI is being used in K-12 classrooms now and how it may be used in the future to help identify areas where students need more assistance. While K-12 relies more on gamification elements in computer-based learning, Dr. Shriver also talks about the use of AI in higher education to reinforce and guide learning with the assistance and oversight of professors.

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Dr. Wanda Curlee: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Wanda Curlee. Today, we are going to be chatting about reinforced learning using artificial intelligence. My guest is Dr. Kathleen Shriver, who is an Associate Professor in the Business Administration Program at American Public University. She has many years of teaching experience. Kathleen, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: My pleasure, Wanda, and thanks for setting up this podcast on this emerging concept.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: My pleasure. As a university professor and former K-12 instructor, you’ve had a lot of experience of what motivates students and what does not. There has been controversy about artificial intelligence or AI, as it is referred to in the classroom. What are your general thoughts about AI in the classroom? Should it only be at the university level?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Not at all, Wanda. Using positive reinforcement or reinforced learning is important. It’s a principle that actually occurs quite naturally in each and every classroom. I think most of us recall learning about Pavlov’s dog, ringing the bell.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes.

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: While not actually AI at the time, it was reinforced learning. I remember telling one of my colleagues, a Pre-K teacher, how difficult it was for me to watch Teletubbies or Barney, (You’re going to be able to do that), with my grandson when he was a toddler due to the repetition of the colors, the numbers, the songs, the sounds. She told me that one study found it took 1,500 times of repeating something for a child to learn the concept.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Oh, my.

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Yeah. In a way, these examples could be considered the first reinforced learning using AI, using the TV. I’m finding using artificial intelligence is providing an incentive for students to enjoy learning at just about all grade levels now.

We have our online college degree programs that I feel started the trend of using AI at the post-high school level. Now, we have online classes at the K-12 levels that are even more popular now due to the COVID-19 issue.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, we’ve seen a lot of online learning now because of COVID, from anywhere from kindergarten on up, so that’s amazing how you can even keep the attention of a kindergartener on the laptop for that long, but I guess it can be done. So how should a professor interact with the AI, or should they?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Well, if the professor is able to make adjustments in an interactive lab, for example, they could set the labs for a number of attempts for a student to access and finish up a test or a quiz, whatever. They can manipulate the AI that way.

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I have many students who will ask if they can practice in the lab with the number of attempts that they have left without affecting their current grade if it comes in lower. The numbers are different for each attempt that they do, but they get to practice on the same type of problem and they really like that.

One nice feature of the labs that we have at APUS is that the professors can review the statistical data generated, which shows if the student reads the chapters, how much time they spend on the assignment, and then I can conduct an item analysis for the problems and suggest adjustments to the lab developers. And I use the stats to determine if a student asks me for an extension request, if they didn’t do the work all through the class, I may say “no,” and so that’s another help for the AI.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, interesting. It’s interesting that they use it with the lab to help the student. Do you ever see AI adjusting the lab to help the student because they’re having problems in a certain area?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Yes. In the labs, when they read the e-book, there are practice questions, there are knowledge questions, and when the student finishes a section, if they choose to do it by section or if they want to do it by chapter, when they’re finished, they get a report on where they need help, and where they need to go back and practice a little bit more. And I can see those reports, so I can help them if they contact me and say, “Oh, I just don’t get this.” I’m able to help them and understand the problem, so it is very helpful.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Oh, that’s good. I wish we had that when I was going through school. Let’s step back a little bit. Can you tell me what do you mean by reinforced learning with AI?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Yes. We are reinforcing learning through computer-assisted learning. We can expand it to think about using more than a desktop or a laptop computer. Students are using tablets and their iPhones, or other Android phones. We have the mobile app available at APUS for students and for the instructors to access classrooms and stay connected.

If you think about it, AI is used to facilitate the streamlined and even our secure authentication when we’re using the app, so they know it’s us. Nobody can just get onto the APUS app and do anything without being enrolled or a faculty member. So, I think that’s important, even thinking about reinforced learning. Do you remember the math and the alphabet flashcards when we were in the early grades?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes.

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: How about playing Hangman to learn spelling, and even subject area content? I know I liked those exercises because it was like, “Oh, we’re playing games in the classroom,” but yet we were learning at the same time, and those cards and spelling games are on computers now in the classrooms. I think the students really like learning that way. Instead of doing the paper and pencil, they’re doing it on the computers.

Let me share this example with you that we just had last year at Grandparents Day last year for my one granddaughter. She was in third grade at the time, and we participated in a math lesson using AI.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow.

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: It was really interesting. The teacher had already had the lesson that they did in a traditional format, but then the students were able to go to a computer lab and they signed into a program called Kahoot!, which we thought was kind of funny, but it worked really well.

The students have to answer math questions within a time limit. All the concepts were covered for the week, and the grandparents now had to do the work, and we didn’t have a lesson, so the grandparents used their grandchild’s login information. Then, on the big screen in the classroom, it was timed.

You had to answer the questions. You had to keep going. By the time it was done, the results were shown up on the board, and the grandkids were kind of cheering on the grandparents saying, “That’s the wrong answer, and you … No, no, no. Don’t you know?,” and trying to fix that up. But that’s how they were learning, and the teacher would just keep doing that, and the kids did that for, I think we were in there half hour, 45 minutes.

Nobody wanted to leave. We were having so much fun, but we were learning at the same time, and there was the AI, involved in helping with the learning.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow. That’s amazing that you can get different generations together, coupled through AI to help the learning of the children. And that is so important these days, especially because our children grow up with devices around them. Whether their parents buy it for them or not, they still have it. They use their parents’ phones or they use their parents’ laptops or iPads. It’s amazing. Should the student know that AI is being implemented or should they know the specifics?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: I think if you ask most students about using AI and learning, they would likely say that they were not using it. We seem to all have different ideas on what AI is. Look at what happened when you first asked me about AI, and I told you movies, and robots, and things.

But for younger students, I think they just want to have fun while learning the concepts. When I asked my granddaughter recently if she knew that she was using AI as she worked on her math homework, she told me she wasn’t using robots to help her. She was coming up with her own answers. This is my fourth grader.

So, she did not understand that at all. She was doing it all on her own, but older students, I think they would understand the use of AI. Maybe not the specifics if they’re not in a computer class or any advanced courses like that. They may not even realize that the computer is grading their homework or providing help prompts, and that’s all AI.

I think as the use of AI in an educational setting becomes more popular, it may be helpful if students did know the specifics of how AI is used to reinforce their learning experience. We’ll see what happens down the road.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. Do you think it’s different at the university level? Should the students at the university level, especially if it’s an online class, know if AI is grading their papers and providing them feedback, or maybe even answering discussion questions? I mean, that may be possible in the future and it may be being done in some universities, I don’t know at this point. What do you think about that?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: I really believe that using AI, I think we should have it presented differently at the elementary, high school, and the university levels. The pre- through 12 options are more game-focused to keep the students interested, but at the university level, the AI learning is reinforced in what I would consider a more formal or scholarly manner.

Our focus isn’t on games in the business labs. You may find a couple games in the math or engineering courses just because they do use those different simulations, but we don’t use that in the business courses. I know that APUS has several courses using Pearson or McGraw-Hill for the labs for the accounting and business, but all of those are the interactive e-books with the practice questions, the knowledge questions.

Students monitor their progress as they complete each chapter, so it’s good for them to know that they have those helps available and those resources that if they don’t understand something, they can go and redo something and try to learn the concepts.

Like I said before, if they don’t, they’ll contact me and say, “Hey, I just don’t get this,” and I’ll be able to call them up and work through it, and hopefully they finally get it, so yeah, it is a little different at university.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Okay. I have seen and read about robots being used, AI robots, not dumb robots, being used in classrooms in Japan. I’m not aware of any in the United States, but they go around and help the students with math, or spelling, or other issues. And the students, especially in this COVID environment, because they have the students walled off, the robot goes around and it can actually speak through the plexiglass and help the student if the student’s having problems. It seems to be very successful in Japan.

So why do you think AI should be used in the classroom other than games and things of that sort? Do you see robots being used here in the United States at any point in time?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: I did see that too, with the robots in Japan and the way that they have all the kids walled off, and it is a good idea. I think here in the United States, just because of money and possibly teacher unions that maybe don’t want that in the classroom, we might not see that too quickly. It may be something in the future, but as something as a near future, I don’t see that.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Interesting. It’s a shame that maybe some teachers see AI as something taking over their job, whereas I see it more of an adjunct to a teacher or a professor’s job. What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: When you said that, it just reminded me of years ago, teacher aides/assistants were not wanted in the classroom. They were seen as a threat to the teacher. Most of them did not want a teacher aide in their classroom because they thought they were just going to be taken over.

Once they realized that the teacher aide was there to assist them, to help them, to reinforce learning, they would take kids who just need a little bit more time, maybe learning to read, or maybe help with the math problems and they’d put them in a separate section of the classroom so they could get that extra learning help. Once they learned that, teacher aides became very popular, but it took a number of years to get to that point.

That’s how I could see this whole issue with robots being used in the classroom. As far as going to each child and helping them that way, I can see them using the computers, and the tablets, and things like that, but an actual robot may not make it.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Kathleen, let’s get back a little bit to AI. You talked a little bit about the differences between AI and K-12 and that at the university level.

Could you add a little bit more? You talked about games maybe K-12, but do you see maybe AI going a little bit farther in K-12 and maybe being a little bit different at the university level, let’s say in a couple years?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Possibly in a couple years. I’m looking at, with my granddaughters, I’ve got the one who’s in fourth grade, uses very little with the AI. I’ve got twins that are in ninth grade now. They are using more AI. In fact, when we talked about it, when I had them this past weekend, and I was telling them about doing this podcast with you with the reinforced learning, and we talked about what they were learning in school and how much they are now using the computer lab, which they are thrilled because they couldn’t use it when they were in the middle school, it’s for the high school kids.

Yeah. They’re focusing on the high school kids using the computers, with doing the games, their exams, everything on the computer now. So, they are thrilled and they like that when they make a mistake and they have the wrong answer, whatever. They get the help right on the computer, and it tells them, “Hey, did you think about this?” It doesn’t give them the answer right away. It makes them think about the process that they went through to get the answer.

I thought that was a little unique because we don’t do that in the lab at the university level. At the university level, it doesn’t walk you through those steps like that. It just tells you, “No, the answer is wrong. This is what you need to look at.” Where with them in the ninth grade, it was actually a voice that was coming and telling them, “Did you think about this? Did you think about this?,” so very different.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: So, they’re actually using chatbots?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Yes. Yes, you’re right. That is what it is, and I have not used that, so that’s what they’ve been doing.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Ah, very good. Very good. We talked about the robots in the classroom in Japan, and you talked about your ninth grader twins, grandchildren, and we see that classrooms in K-12 in many public schools are getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, which makes it very difficult for one teacher to meet the needs of all the students. Do you see AI being more responsive to the student?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Yes, definitely. Because the teacher can’t be with every one of them, and you’re right, even in our little town, our class sizes are up to 30 right now in the elementary schools. It used to be 15 to 20, but due to funding, they’ve been increasing.

Our school district with the elementary and the middle schools, what they did, they have provided every student a laptop computer, just the small Chromebooks. They were able to get funding from the different businesses, so every student has that, so they use it in class and they can take it home with them, and they communicate with the teacher. If they have a problem, they can email the teacher and get answers to their questions, so it really is working well with the larger class sizes that they do have that resource available for them.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I actually see sometime in the future a Google, or Alexa, or Siri sitting on each child’s desk and helping the child learn. I think that would be awesome because children are going to have to learn that AI is all around us, and it is all around us. And why not start at the lower levels to help them learn how to deal with it?

Not to provide them the answers, but to help them get there. Yes, I remember when calculators came out and my daughter was in first grade, they wanted her to use a calculator to do math and I said, “No. No, she’s got to learn.”

Although, believe me, I’m not against calculators or anything of that sort because we do need them in today’s environment, but they do have to learn the specifics, so do you think something on a child’s desk, especially K-12 could help the student get through history, math, whatever the subject area is?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Yes. I could see something like that happening. Interesting concept.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. I could see students coming home and saying, “Alexa, tell me the answer to this issue,” and who knows? Alexa or Google, one of those could give them the answer.

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Yes.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: There have been studies that show that AI grades papers as well as professors. Is this a good use of AI? Should the professor look over the results or just trust the AI software? What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: I don’t like relying on AI alone for grading. I don’t think it’s a really good use of AI. Just look at how we use Turnitin. I use it for all the papers, and it’s a good help for me to help the student learn where they need to cite correctly, maybe where they can rewrite something, improve their writing skills, but I like to look at every paper.

I would not trust just AI to do a writing assignment. It’s fine for if you had multiple choice quizzes, and even short answer ones sometimes don’t work well because you’ll put a couple keywords in, and you’ll look at the keywords and say, “Oh yeah, they put the keywords in, but all the rest of their stuff doesn’t make sense,” so I think the professor does need to be involved with grading writing assignments.

That’s just my personal opinion on that. Others may not agree. They may like just having a computer grade everything, and I just can’t do that. Not yet.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, understand. I see at some point, especially in the online environment, obviously the professor can’t—at the university level, I’m talking—the professor can’t be online 24 hours a day. That’s physically impossible.

But we have students that may be all over the world, and a student may have a question or needs an answer to something. Do you see using AI to answer common type questions like, “Oh, I need to talk to advising.”

“Can you tell me how to get a hold of them?,” or, “I need help with this right now,” and it’s an easy concept to explain. Do you see AI chatbots, or even in just writing back and forth, do you see AI doing that and being helpful to the student or would that be confusing to the professor and the student?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: If we had the capability to do that, I’m thinking of how, when we call up a store or call the bank, and it gives you the whole menu, “If you need this, go here. If you have this question, it can be answered here.”

I don’t think we have that capability in the classroom right now. It would be a nice feature that they could access that and find out where they needed to do simple questions. If it’s something more detailed, then they really needed the professor, they would just have to wait.

I know I’ve got two people in Korea right now. I get their messages at 8:00, 9:00 at night. So every night I always check my emails, just before I do anything else about that time because if they have a question, that’s when I know that is going to come in.

Because the students will let us know where they are, where they’re located, so I go on my classrooms at different times during the day because I know that I’ve got students all around the world and with different time zones, but I could see the, almost like the robotic calls.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes.

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: To answer simply, yes.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yes, that would be very nice, I think for our students as well. Truthfully, I don’t think we have anything in any university at this point, unless they call into a central 800 number, but within the classroom, I don’t think it’s there yet. It would be nice to see if we get that capability in a couple of years or so in all universities because I think that will help students whether they’re brick and mortar or whether they’re online.

The last question here, and it’s a big question, and we kind of touched on it, do you see AI replacing professors and teachers in the classroom? What are your thoughts about that?

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Well, after these past few months of dealing with COVID-19, I really don’t think that AI will replace teachers in the classroom, especially for the K-12 students.

If anything, I think this lockdown has shown us that virtual learning is not for every learner. Human interaction in the classroom is important. I know my granddaughters couldn’t wait to get back to school, and not because they wanted to do the work, but they wanted to see their friends.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Right, the social interaction.

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Yeah, they really miss it, and even now, they’re still doing the six feet apart. They can’t eat lunch at the same tables, they’re spread all over, but at least they can wave to one another, talk to one another across the table, so they’re happy.

I teach one of the first math-based courses in the MBA program, and I cannot tell you how many students emailed to let me know that online learning was not for them and they were going to enroll in a traditional college.

But whenever I’ve been given the opportunity, I will encourage them to stay enrolled and access the resources available to help them. I let them know I’m available. I’m active in the classroom every day, responding to their questions, and, for the most part, I’ve been successful with keeping them in the classroom. Once they get past that math class, they’re doing better in their other courses.

Many times I meet up with them in the final Capstone classes, in the Business 698 especially, and I will get the emails, “Thank you so much for talking me into staying.” It just depends on the student, but I don’t think we’re going to replace professors and teachers in the classroom. I think we’re still needed, and especially for the younger students.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. Everything I’ve read so far on the way AI is now, I totally agree with you, AI needs to be an adjunct to the professor or to the teacher. It’s not going to replace anyone anytime soon.

Kathleen, thank you very much for joining me today and sharing your story with me about K-12 and online learning at the university level. It’s been a great podcast.

Dr. Kathleen Shriver: Well, Wanda, thank you for bringing this topic to the public’s attention. It really is important. We don’t always think about it, and you’ve been making me think more about AI over these last couple months, so thank you.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Well, AI is all around us, and thank you to our listeners for joining us. Stay well.

About the Speakers

Dr. Wanda Curlee is a Program Director at American Public University. She has over 30 years of consulting and project management experience and has worked at several Fortune 500 companies. Dr. Curlee has a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix, a MBA in Technology Management from the University of Phoenix, and a M.A. and a B.A. in Spanish Studies from the University of Kentucky. She has published numerous articles and several books on project management.

Dr. Kathleen Shriver has more than 40 years of professional experience; almost 30 years was acquired at the Buffalo City School District in New York. She was directly in­volved with the business management and operation of the organization in dealing with staffing, budgets, data analysis, and overall management functions of the Instructional Division. She also spent time working with graduate students from area colleges who were completing thesis papers on the Buffalo City Schools.

Her educational background includes an Associate Degree in Applied Science in Paralegal Studies from Hilbert College in NY and a Bachelor of Science degree in Management from Houghton College in NY – both accomplished in traditional campus settings. She earned her Master of Business Administration (MBA) online at Baker College and a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) online at Northcentral University.

For the past 11 years, Dr. Shriver has been an online adjunct instructor, mentoring students in business, organizational management, and leadership courses, primarily at the graduate and doctorate levels.

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