What is Artificial Intelligence and How Will It Impact Learning?

Shauna Carson

The 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey" introduced us to the HAL 9000, a sentient computer who, for millions of people, was their first glimpse of artificial intelligence (AI). Many of us feared this concept and dreaded the idea that, one day, computers would be making decisions for us based on what they had learned.

Well, 2001 has come and gone and we are indeed living in the age of artificial intelligence. AI has its detractors and its supporters. But, no matter how you want to look at it, the age of AI is here and it's here to stay.

Artificial intelligence has and will continue to affect many aspects of our lives, including learning. In this article, I'll describe some of the ways that AI is being used in L&D and take a look at what experts say is in the future of learning.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is software that is able to perform certain tasks that would normally require a human brain to complete. You could say that AI is partially a machine that collects and assembles data and partially a software system that understands how to use that data.

The software is designed to "learn" in that it uses the data it is fed to recognise patterns. In this way, the computer could play chess or other games (for example, "Jeopardy") or it could use its data to answer a user's request for information. The software can also be configured to complete tasks such as facial or voice recognition.

Artificial intelligence is already in common use. YouTube uses it behind the scenes to offer videos to audiences viewing a particular type of video (e.g. funny cats, Celtic music, etc.). AI is also the Watson robot, which can be programmed to forecast weather or perform concierge services at hotels and banks. We can only hope that Watson will "open the pod door" when asked.

Artificial Intelligence in Learning

So, where does AI fit into eLearning or, for that matter, learning in general?

Learning and development is an area that has experienced a lot of change over the past few years, and it will continue to change as new technology emerges. Artificial intelligence is yet one more innovation that is already making an impact on learning. Here are a few examples:

Marking and grading

This is not a new automated function; computers have been able to mark multiple-choice exams for years. But AI developers are working to create software that will be able to grade essays and other written works.


Making learning accessible to everyone is a challenge, and one where AI will prove a valuable tool. Microsoft is committed to developing AI apps to help make the world more accessible for those with disabilities. Its Seeing AI app is a great example of AI that uses a smartphone to help the visually impaired interpret and understand what they are looking at by providing an audible description of what is being viewed by the phone. YouTube uses AI in offering multi-language automated closed captioning of videos. Developments in AI accessibility apps are changing, and will continue to change the lives of those with challenges.


At this time, AI cannot do everything that human tutors do, but it can do a lot. AI is now being used to tutor students in foreign languages. Sure, learning a language online isn't new; websites such as Rosetta Stone and Babbel have been around for years. But Duolingo's chatbot approach to teaching foreign languages creates a different learning experience through the use of AI.

AI is also being used to tutor different math topics. Tutoring platforms such as Amy and Mathia provide one-on-one tutoring and offer feedback on the work students complete. These programs also use the data they collect to identify and fill students' gaps in understanding of math functions.

Providing an automated teaching assistant is another way AI technology is being used in education. Georgia Tech is using a Watson platform named "Jill" to interact with learners in an online course on artificial intelligence. Jill is described as a "graduate-level teaching assistant" and is available to students 24/7.

Content Creation

Let's face it, creating learning content and keeping it current is time-consuming (but it pays my bills!). Artificial intelligence is now being used to create course content. A leader in this AI application, Content Technologies Inc (CTI), (arguably the largest publisher of higher education materials) is using AI to create content.

Keeping content current is another challenge we in the learning industry face. AI, with its access to a variety of databases is proving to be a valuable research tool in finding and providing links to articles and websites related to specific learning topics. Ferret AI is one example of this type of AI application.

What Does the Future Hold?

AI systems allow students to learn anywhere, anytime and at the pace they prefer. It can help them identify where they excel and where they need to improve. It can offer advice on additional resources and make learning more accessible. As the technology develops, we will see greater use of AI in education from content creation to content delivery, from instruction to marking and grading and so on.

It's far too early to say that AI will replace human teachers, but it will change the nature of the classroom -- from early education all the way to post-secondary levels. It will also change the way training at the workplace is delivered. We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how AI can be used in education and in other aspects of our lives. Liam Hanel provides a comprehensive list of AI applications that demonstrates the versatility of artificial intelligence.

AI is here to stay. Some of us will only be moderately affected by the technology, but for the next generation of learners, AI could well be a major factor in how they learn about the world and how they interact with it.

Or, will they have to apply Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics to control it? Stay tuned!

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Shauna Carson

Shauna graduated from the University of Toronto in 2002 with a Master of Arts in English before moving home to Calgary to work in the fast-paced, detail-oriented oil and gas industry. Now certified as a technical writer, Shauna is comfortable writing in a variety of styles, and for a variety of audiences.