By Derek Newton
Using artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance teaching and learning has been a kind of nirvana for education leaders for several years now – a place of perhaps unimagined power that has perpetually seemed just out of grasp.
And though it may feel as if it’s always just around the next corner, forever one tool or dataset away, one entrepreneur says we’re getting closer. In fact, he says we may be close enough to say we’ve actually arrived at the place where AI products and systems are already showing the return they’ve promised for so long – personalizing learning for students, yielding rich and actionable data, simplifying teaching practices and, best of all, improving learning outcomes.
That positive assessment comes from Ramesh Balan, the founder and CEO of Knomadix – the buzz-worthy AI education company he launched in 2015.
And Balan may be worth listening to. In addition to being an education entrepreneur, Balan is somewhat of a math and computer prodigy. He graduated high school at age 15, was an engineer by 20 and went on to get his Masters in Computer Science. He’s worked at the prestigious Bell Labs and founded three other companies in addition to Knomadix.
“What Knomadix does is to, for the first time, put the power of AI into the hands of teachers, allowing them to easily build and use this advanced technology across any subject, any lesson, at any level,” Balan said. “It’s the first education AI solution that is flexible and scalable and it will change the way teachers can unlock learning for their students.”
At the heart of Knomadix, Balan says, are bots – interactive computer personas that can facilitate active learning by students, as well as respond to and guide student responses. And while using AI bots is not new to education or in general, the Knomadix approach may be. Instead of building bots that fit into early childhood Reading or Middle school math or Algebra, as examples, the Knomadix bots fit anywhere and everywhere a teacher or education publisher or school district puts them.
“What we’ve done,” Balan said, “is to put aside the approach of building bots that are well-versed in one topic at a time, in favor of building a fully functioning, fully customizable bot factory for teachers and publishers.” Now, he says, school districts and teachers can be their own AI bot builders, bringing AI power to whatever it is they’re teaching or whatever it is they want their students to master.
Importantly, Balan says, the bots aren’t teaching. They’re not replacing teachers. Instead, they function more like tutors, human tutors. Knomadix’s bots give step-by-step guided tutoring with contextual real-time feedback about the correctness of every step in an assignment – not feedback on just the final answer to a problem, as well as how or why the answer may not be right, encouraging students to try again or to focus on core elements of the problem. The Knomadix bots do what a teacher would do if they had the time to sit next to every student on every assignment.
“What we’re doing, what we’ve been able to do is to essentially clone the teacher’s capacity and expand their effectiveness and reach for one on one instruction or tutoring,” Balan said. “all while keeping the teacher in full control of the content, the information and learning process.”
And cloning or super-charging teaching reach and ability could not come along at a better time, Balan says. “Teaching is getting harder and more complicated and more complex,” he said. “And on top of that, we’re seeing fewer and fewer people willing and able to do the job. We’re facing a dramatic teacher shortage in which we will expect our teachers to do even more than before, more than ever. So, allowing teachers, helping them replicate their expertise in a personal, one to one way, is really important right now.”
But expanding reach and efficiency is not the only benefit to teachers. Having AI bots in lessons while students do the work can help capture the step-by-step and stroke-by-stroke learning development of every student, thereby unearthing rich and deep learning data about individual students, lessons, or concepts.
With Knomadix bots, Balan says, teachers can not only see which students gave correct or incorrect or incomplete answers, they can gain insight into why or why not. In the system, educators can also see how long a student took to answer or how many attempts they made, insights that can help teachers pinpoint speed bumps in learning or even in how the material is being delivered. That, Balan says, can help students learn more but it can also help teachers teach better.
“It’s hard to overstate what a powerful thing that is,” Balan said. “If a teacher sees that 70% of their students are struggling with a question or a concept, watching them offer multiple potential solutions, they can go back and look at whether maybe the question itself is confusing or maybe a portion of the teaching pathway was rushed or interrupted or unclear. With good data, teachers get better every day.”
What may really set Balan’s company apart, however, is how it makes AI flexible, into a universal widget for any lesson in any subject. “With Knomadix,” Balan said, “teachers can imbed AI bots in anything – video, existing websites, pdf files, written material on specific words or passages, images, even existing publisher apps. As one investor said, that allows Knomadix to be the Adobe for education, and that is what we are, a universal platform that enhances the overall learning experience and engagement through interactivity and imbedded feedback, as well as putting AI in education wherever you want it. We’re turning school districts and teachers into custom AI publishers and when that takes off, it will transform everything.”
To some, that may sound like nirvana. To hear Balan tell it, it sounds like now. It also sounds like we should be listening.