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SXSW EDU Panelists Explore the Past, Present and Future Shaping AI in Education

Imagine! You enter a third-grade classroom and see Maria, struggling to learn how to read, receiving special instruction from Amira, an artificial intelligence (AI) assistant. While the rest of the class works in groups on various assignments, Amira is patient, persistent and keeps Maria engaged.

This is how Dan Domenech helped the entranced audience see the possibilities of AI in the classroom.

This future scenario is one of many advances that AI may contribute to learning, a topic explored at this month’s SXSW EDU conference.

AI is making many breakthroughs possible in education technology. From adaptive learning systems, to automated content generation and scoring—the possibilities are boundless. There is little doubt that advances in AI will continue to shape the future of education, offering exciting growth opportunities for businesses and organizations looking to do social good.

At SXSW EDU, I organized and chaired a panel discussion focused on the challenges and opportunities inherent in utilizing education technology, with a thought-provoking discussion on the impact of AI in education.

I was in impressive company to explore this intriguing topic with fellow panelists Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators; Nirmal Mukhi, development leader of the Watson Education Platform at IBM; and Jason Palmer, general partner at New Markets Venture Partners, one of the nation’s leading education-focused venture capital firms.

Watch Alina von Davier’s Panel Picker submission video for SXSW EDU

We provided specific examples and use cases for AI implementation, through the lens of storytelling and by examining the implications of innovations throughout history.

While Dan presented a compelling look at the future of AI in his story about Maria and her AI assistant, Amira, Nirmal brought us back in time to Mesopotamia. He talked about the societal impact of writing on tablets, musing on the potential push back that the tablets might have received from an ancient society that relied on oral transmission of culture and history. With this perspective, he drew a parallel about why and how AI is perceived skeptically today.

Change is hard, especially when it affects our lifestyle and culture, but the potential to improve our society is tremendous. It is human nature to push for progress.

Next, Jason positioned AI in the present, discussing the various uses of AI in education that have already proven successful, such as automatic scoring and plagiarism detection. He believes the time is right for these types of advances to hit the mainstream and predicts that AI in education is going to quickly take off.

Lastly, in sticking to stories and history, I brought us back in time to ancient Greece and suggested that the Hippocratic Oath of “Do no harm” govern our AI-development and applications: The responsibility to act ethically, with good intentions, should be shared by educators, developers, and investors.

AI is neither good nor bad in itself and as such it is not something to be feared. No tool is perfect, but with an iterative spirit and open mind we can utilize this evolving technology to solve any number of issues in our lives.

At ACT, we’re transforming from a testing company to an organization dedicated to learning, measurement, and navigation. This transformation is powered by the type of cutting-edge research in AI and computational psychometrics that the panelists touched upon.

Within ACTNext and at ACT broadly, we are excited to champion AI advances to help more people achieve education and workplace success.

Alina von Davier is senior vice president at ACT where she leads ACTNext. She and her team conduct research and develop prototypes supporting the next generation of learning and assessment. She is a pioneer in computational psychometrics and the blending of machine-learning algorithms with psychometric theory.

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About ACTNext

ACTNext is the change agent for ACT using research and technology expertise that extends ACT’s assessment experience to transform life-long learning for all. We innovate using AI-algorithms, data-based and theory-grounded methods, which allows ACT to realize the next generation of learning, measurement, and navigation products. We deliver customized, best in class systems for personalized feedback built on analysis of an individual’s skills, behavior, and means of knowledge acquisition. Most importantly, we recognize learning is a journey, and we aim to partner with learners on their unique pathways to success. Visit to learn more.

About ACT

ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.