Drexel Researchers Will Develop Artificial Intelligence Technologies for Adult Learning and Online Education as Part of $220 Million NSF Initiative

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Researchers from Drexel's College of Computing & Informatics will join a $220 million National Science Foundation effort to expand the use of artificial intelligence techology.

Researchers in Drexel University’s College of Computing & Informatics, who are studying artificial intelligence as a tool for teaching, have been selected to join a $220 million National Science Foundation initiative to expand the use of AI technology in areas ranging from agriculture and food supply chains to adult and online learning. Drexel’s team will join AI researchers from around the country in an effort to use the technology to make education more accessible for Americans who are adapting to rapidly changing workplaces. The NSF’s Adult Learning & Online Education (ALOE) Institute will be supported by $20 million over five years.  

“The goal of ALOE is to develop new artificial intelligence theories and techniques to make online education for adults at least as effective as in-person education in STEM fields,” said Ashok Goel, a professor of computer science and human-centered computing and the chief scientist with the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Institute of Technology, who will be executive director of the ALOE Institute. “ALOE will develop new types of trainable virtual assistants, novel AI techniques to personalize learning at an unprecedented scale, and AI systems to support both learners and teachers.”

ALOE is one of 11 new AI research institutes recently announced by the NSF as an expansion of its NSF AI Institutes initiative that started in 2020. The education-focused ALOE Institute entails 12 partner institutions, including Georgia Research Alliance, Georgia Tech, Drexel, Georgia State University, Arizona State University, University of North Carolina Greensboro, Harvard University, Technical College System of Georgia, Wiley, Boeing, IBM and IMS Global.

“I am delighted to announce the establishment of new NSF National AI Research Institutes as we look to expand into all 50 states,” said National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These institutes are hubs for academia, industry and government to accelerate discovery and innovation in AI. They lead to new capabilities that improve our lives from medicine to entertainment to transportation and cybersecurity while growing the economy and maintaining global competitiveness.”

According to Panchanathan, maintaining global science and engineering leadership hinges on the development of an adequately trained STEM workforce in the United States. In addition to engaging young learners with STEM concepts, developing and maintaining such a workforce will require improving STEM education and workforce training for adults.  

To address this challenge, the ALOE Institute, which will be led by the Georgia Research Alliance, will develop AI theories and techniques that enhance the quality of adult online education and make it comparable to in-person educational opportunities. ALOE will advance online learning using virtual assistants to make education more equitable and affordable — ensuring that students have a higher potential for success, the NSF said in a statement announcing the institutes.

Over the next five years, the ALOE Institute will advance AI research in four foundational areas: Personalization at Scale, Mutual Theory of Mind, Machine Teaching, and Responsible AI.

Leveraging these advancements, the institute will create use-inspired AI technologies to improve learning outcomes by fostering cognitive engagement, teacher presence, and social interactions at unprecedented scales. The institute will also apply the principles of learning engineering to create feedback loops among teachers, learners, and AI agents—enabling the systematic and continuous improvement of learner outcomes.

College of Computing & Informatics Assistant Professor of Information Science and Computer Science Christopher MacLellan, PhD will be collaborating on this effort to lead the machine teaching thrust.

“Machine Teaching is a new paradigm that brings together machine learning and human-computer interaction research to enable non-technical users to build and personalize AI systems through natural teaching interactions, similar to how they would teach another human,” MacLellan said. “We aim to apply this new paradigm to empower people without AI expertise, such as teachers and students, to directly create and customize their own AI systems—scaling up the creation and accessibility of AI technologies for education.”

MacLellan leads Drexel’s Teachable AI Lab where his team studies how people teach and learn in an effort to build machines that can teach and learn like people. The Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Army Research Lab is currently funding their work to build teachable AI capabilities that can enhancing human-machine collaboration and make the creation of AI models for diagnosing battlefield injuries more cost effective.

MacLellan’s doctoral research produced an AI-driven “teachable virtual assistant” similar to that envisioned by the ALOE team. Research and development at ALOE will strive to blend online educational resources and courses to make education more widely available, as well as to use virtual assistants to make it more affordable and achievable.

“The idea that AI can be a powerful instrument for social good is central to the ALOE Institute vision,” MacLellan said. “ALOE will utilize participatory design practices to identify high-impact challenges for adult learning and responsibly develop AI technologies to address them. The institute will also implement mechanisms to ensure continuous reflection on whether developed AI technologies are best serving the public good. Through this responsible AI development process, the ALOE Institute will develop novel AI technologies that address societal-level education and workforce training challenges.”