The theme of Athabasca University’s (AU) 50th anniversary is Beyond 50. We want to look forward to the next 50 years and imagine what the future of learning might hold. How will higher education institutions like AU adapt to new technologies and new modes of teaching? How do we create programs that will suit the needs of our learners in the next 10 or 20 years?
This is the final part of a four-part Future of Learning series. The series explores current trends that are shaping education for tomorrow, featuring the next generation work that AU’s professors are doing today. You can read part one, part two, and part three now.
Weaving AI into instruction
Athabasca University academic area manager Richard Dixon received a call from a co-op student during their work placement this last semester who was so angry at his new boss Charles.
Charles had been making life difficult for the student, who had been hired as a management trainee for a financial institution in the middle of a major acquisition.
Charles was being very hard to deal with and had been waffling on the acquisition decision, forcing the student into very difficult situations.
The student was frustrated and Dixon, the academic area manager at Athabasca University Faculty of Business, who was overseeing the co-op program, said the student learned how to navigate Charles over the 16-week program and developed many soft skills, like empathy, ethics, team building, persuasion, and leadership.
But Charles is not a real person. Charles is an artificial intelligence (AI) simulation powered by IBM Watson to give students a realistic experience of the difficulties they may face in the workplace. The program submerges students into an AI-powered workplace environment with co-workers and challenges they must face to succeed in their placement. Over the four months, students resolve conflicts, implement strategies and policies, and make financial decisions all while working with AI-powered staff members.
“One of the things that most students repeated was what they learned is emotional regulation,” Dixon said.
The difficult boss is part of a new program at Athabasca University, which launched this last semester with seven students, who are all in the final year of their Bachelor of Commerce degrees.
Typically students go out to a workplace for their co-op placement, but Athabasca University is re-thinking how co-op placements and AI can be integrated to enhance the workplace experience for their students.
The 16-week program is created to help students expand their soft skills and test the knowledge they learned throughout their degree, all while taking part in an on-the-job learning experience.
The professor said Athabasca University is the perfect school to lead the way with this new technology because they are already an online university with a student population distributed across the world.
Building hard and soft skills through AI
Professor Dr. Vive Kumar with the School of Computing and Information Systems at Athabasca University said the school is able to integrate new cutting edge AI technologies because of the maturity of the student population.
Most of the students at Athabasca are already employed or working in their chosen professional field, he said.
“But still, they come back with the thirst to learn, so that is a very specific quality,” Kumar said.
The professor added Athabasca University students are also self-driven and self-motivated in their classes.
“They study on their own, they self regulate, they bring in a lot of grit to study. That is a spark that makes them adaptable to new things like this. They want to play with it,” Kumar said.
Dixon said the feedback from the first round of students taking the virtual co-op program has been amazing and students said it was a privilege to be a part of the program and it exceeded all of their expectations.
Traditional co-op programs are not always valuable for students, Dixon said, and this new program aims to change the traditional formula behind the student work placement program. Often students are given basic tasks or they are shadowing along with other staff members.
“Most co-ops are not always positive experiences for students,” Dixon said. “It’s basically a more clerical administrative exercise to get familiar with the culture but you’re not really given any decision making authority.”
With the new AI-powered program, students are thrown into the thick of the decision-making in the role of management trainees at a financial institution.
The program delivers six major projects to students over four months with 30 challenging scenarios, including firing a staff member, working with a difficult boss, and building credibility in a new corporate environment.
“Not only are you going to get challenged on your soft skills, but you’re also going to get challenged on your hard skills at the same time,” Dixon said, adding it is all done in a safe learning environment where students are able to research best practices and consult with mentors and teachers for guidance.
Students build up their soft skills all while having to execute their learned knowledge in areas like marketing, finance, and human resource management.
Being submerged in the workplace culture for months and navigating difficult situations allows for students to get fully invested in the program, Dixon said.
The pilot co-op program ran from January to April 2020 and in the fall the AI-powered experience will expand to all Bachelor of Commerce students.
Getting workplace ready
Faculty of Business Dean Deborah Hurst said the co-op program is just one of the ways AI is being integrated into the faculty to help students develop their soft skills and be workplace ready.
She said employers often say that university graduates are not ready to hit the ground running at work because they haven’t developed their soft skills.
“(Students) were graduating with degrees and they were embarking on their new careers and then the employer had to spend the next year or two trying to get them to the point that they’re actually ready to be taking on new responsibilities. What that (gap) was related to was largely professional skills,” Hurst said.
She and the rest of the team at the Faculty of Business realized there was a gap in skills and wanted to make sure every student who graduated from the undergraduate and graduate programs were ready to thrive in their new job.
“What I want to do always is not only prepare graduates to be work ready but to also be promotion ready and to be ready to take on the challenges of employment,” Hurst said.
When Athabasca University launched the first online Master of Business Administration (MBA) program 25 years ago, she said those students got an excellent opportunity to develop those soft skills through their interactions and the intense group work required in the program, despite the fact that they were working in a distributed online setting.
Hurst was determined to bring that same opportunity to her undergraduate students, who were learning online and at their own pace in locations across the world. Hurst then led the faculty in integrating new AI technology to allow students to work on their soft skills.
“We’re not only building (the skills) in, we’re doing it in a distributed context. So that even adds another layer to it. I would argue that my grads are better prepared than any other grads as a result,” she said.
In the digital business communications class, a program was introduced to allow students to work in an environment with AI characters as part of a simulated team. The course takes a baseline skills assessment of the student and puts them in situations where they are expected to learn and apply their academic skills along with learning how to work with a team.
“At the end of the course, they not only know how to do an effective report and effective pitch to a client or presentation, they also know how to deal with challenging people in this environment. This prepares them not only to communicate to an employer or to a fellow employee, face-to-face but also digitally,” Hurst said.
Moving beyond 50
While Athabasca University is leading the pack when it comes to teaching soft skills through AI, the school also uses the new technology in many creative ways.
Kumar said AI can be used alongside traditional teaching methods to help enhance the learning experience for students and it can also help teachers offload straightforward but mundane marking tasks to technology and focus on being more creative with their teaching methods.
One way he integrates AI technology into his courses is during his final exams. The professor gives his students two questions to solve in seven hours, and the students get feedback from the AI powered system as they solve the problem. Students can see what mark they will get on the exam as they go along and see how their problem solving skills compare to industry expectations.
Athabasca University isn’t just using AI technology in their courses; Kumar and his team have also created some of the technology that is used by other schools.
The team developed a software program that teachers can use to scan the facial expressions and body language of their students to measure how engaged they are in the lessons. The information comes to a dashboard that the teacher can see in real time, showing many different metrics from the students, including engagement, confusion or happiness.
Kumar said it is necessary to stay on the cutting edge of AI if schools want to compete in a global community.
“If this technology is being adopted globally, that means certain parts of the world could adopt (the technology) faster than us, then we will be at a disadvantage. So we are in a race right now,” he said.
But Kumar said Athabasca is poised to compete on the world stage when it comes to using and creating this new technology. The leadership team at the school is looking to the future and inspiring both staff and students to dream about the next 50 years at the school. The practice inspired the entire school to dream about the possibilities, including new technology and how their digital delivery method is poised to thrive in the future of education.
“What happened was for the community itself, we lived through it, so we started to believe in it. We all seem to have our common understanding of where the university is headed. That is a huge cultural shift.”