Want to get ahead? Start thinking about AI, tech leaders urge



If the paths blazed by tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon and IBM are any indication, artificial intelligence is about to explode into everyday life — and spill over into classrooms across the country.

At SIIA’s Education Business Forum in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, representatives from LinkedIn, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft discussed the work they’re doing and how it’s reshaping the education market.

Richard Langford, a senior education strategist at Microsoft, and Leo Zhadanovsky, principal solutions architect for AWS’s public sector team, both said artificial intelligence is the future, and it’s what their respective companies are focused on.

Microsoft’s education partners are often scrambling for ways to capture the attention of and foster relationships with the tech giant, Langford said. But they’re all coming to Microsoft with solutions and products that fit the problems facing education right now, he said, creating a “traffic jam” in the market.

If edtech companies want to get noticed by Microsoft, Langford said, his advice is to look to the future and “skate to where the puck is going” by creating solutions to tomorrow’s education issues.

And since Microsoft’s puck is headed straight for AI-powered technology, he said, education partners should take note of and capitalize on that.

“If you are really wanting to get onto the landscape of the
partner world at Microsoft, think about artificial intelligence and how you can
begin to incorporate some of that capacity into what you’re doing,” Langford said. “There are a
lot of tools that are available right now … that are made to be consumed
easily by developers. Get ahead of that thinking, start moving down that
pathway, and I think you’ll find you start catching people’s attention.”

At a separate event during the conference, Phaedra Boinodiris, an education leader from IBM, delivered a similar message.

IBM’s Watson technology has spawned a variety of AI-driven learning tools in the last couple of years. The Teacher Advisor with Watson, for example, is a personalized learning agent that guides teachers on formulating high-quality lesson plans and honing their instruction skills.

Other tools that utilize AI, which range from tone analyzers to personality evaluations to game-based learning, will soon edge into schools and campuses, but in ways we can’t yet imagine, according to Boinodiris, who is IBM’s senior strategy lead for edtech.

Boinodiris described custom-made games that use AI to deliver personalized instruction to students. She also talked about the power of AI to encourage collaboration and even hand-pick the individuals who would work best together on a team — whether it be in a classroom, a study group or a collection of educators.

“We’re on the verge of this technology tsunami,” she said, adding that the implications for education are nearly limitless.

Langford, the Microsoft education specialist, works with 19 states and the District of Columbia. That means he has a lot of interaction with state superintendents, large state university systems and K-12 districts. And he covers the gamut of Microsoft’s education offerings, from cloud to Office 365 to virtual reality.

During the conference, Langford named two “massive issues” state education departments are looking to address right now.

One, he said, is school broadband — getting all students online, no matter where they are located. It’s an issue that has made headway in recent years but still requires attention and action. “There’s a huge demand to extend [broadband] environments and facilitate the use of technology to small school districts and rural school districts,” he said.

The second is computer science education: “At a state level, there is a great deal of demand around workforce readiness. … That is on just about every governor’s plate,” he said, noting that a lot of states have adopted computer science standards for their K-12 schools.

The so-called “fourth industrial revolution” could be a rude awakening for states that underestimate the role of technology — and, specifically, a basic understanding of computer science — in future jobs, he said.

“It’s actually getting to be a crisis point, and I think the states are waking up to that,” Langford said.