Georgia Tech Will Deploy this Summer an Improved Version of its AI-Based Teacher Assistant

Mikel Amigot | IBL News (San Diego)

A refined and revised version of Georgia Tech’s first AI-based teacher assistant will be introduced this summer as a way to enhance some of the syllabi at the school. This virtual agent, known as Jill Watson and developed by Professor Ashok Goel, will turn three years old.

Yakut Gazi, Associate Dean of Learning Systems at Georgia Tech, highlighted during the 2019 Learning Impact Leadership Institute conference, last week in San Diego, the fact that her institution “is leading efforts in Artificial Intelligence’s development”. “Many students of the OMSC degree didn’t know that an AI agent was responding their questions until the end of the semester,” she added.

Jill Watson is the result of the work of Prof. Goel [in the picture] with a team of graduate students in his Design & Intelligence Laboratory (DILAB). This team created this chatbot to answer routine, frequently asked questions in the forum for his online Knowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence (KBAI) class.

The original intent was to free up time for the course TAs (Teacher Assistants), so they could concentrate on more creative and less repetitive tasks. But an expected outcome arose: more learner engagement. Before Jill Watson, students averaged 32 comments per semester; after Jill Watson, each student averaged 38 comments per semester.

In the spring of 2016, once this AI-agent’s identity was revealed, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

One student wanted to nominate Jill for the Outstanding TA award, and not one student complained.

National news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post ran stories on her. Ashok Goel gave a TEDxTalk on Jill, and he was invited by the Gates Foundation in January 2018 to participate in a brainstorming session on the future of AI in education.

Georgia Tech’s motto is affordability, accessibility, and applicability, and Jill Watson can help human teachers deliver education at scale.

Georgia Tech: Jill Watson’s Terrific Twos

Canadian Educator Heather Payne Says that Tenure Should Be Abolished

John G. Paul | IBL News

One hour after delivering the keynote address of the day, Heather Payne, speaker and entrepreneur, tweeted: “Just told a room full of tenured professors that tenure is dumb and should be abolished and lived to tell the tale. Thanks for having me, State University of New York!”.

Heather Payne’s post was a rightful summary of an energetic conference that shocked many professors gathered in the auditorium of SUNY’s Purchase College in New York, during the second day of the CIT2019 event.

This young Canadian educator, founder and CEO of the HackerYou coding bootcamp, and named one the top innovators in North America, delivered a one-hour talk featured as “Starting from scratch. How higher ed needs to change its contract with its students”.

The main thesis was that “college isn’t designed for students”. Collectively, 44 million Americans owe $1.5 trillion in student loans. Besides, as she highlighted, there is a mental health crisis, with many students experiencing episodes of overwhelming anxiety. The university system has its origins in Medieval Europe, where the instruction was based on delivering lectures, and main teaching subjects were arts, law, theology and medicine.

“Higher education needs to be fully redesigned,” claimed Heather Payne [in the picture], before explaining how new colleges should function.

In addition to eliminating stadiums, as a metaphor of sports programs, Mrs. Heather stated that tenure should be eliminated, along with the research job. “No tenure. And professors should do no research”.

“Tenure is job protection that none of the rest of us have access to, nor is it something any of us should want for our society. It removes the incentive to improve and keeps professors in jobs they should move on from”.

“We want professors to spend their energy coaching, mentoring and guiding the leaders of tomorrow. Research in higher ed has been nothing but a distraction at most schools, taking away from the student experience”.

She proposed no tuition payment upfront and an income sharing agreement with students when they land their first job after graduating from college. This model is being implemented in her 30-employees, Toronto-based start-up, which teaches 9-week long web coding-related programs, helping learners transition from low paying jobs to $50k+ ones.



The New Standard LTI 1.3, which Allows Interoperability of Grades and Assignments, Excites the Industry

Mikel Amigot | IBL News (San Diego)

The new standard of LTI 1.3 and LTI Advantage is here.

These two open industry standards by IMS Global provide secure connections between learning platforms and the digital edtech ecosystem.

On May 15, the IMS Global Learning Consortium, specializing in edtech interoperability, announced the availability of Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) version 1.3, a significant update to the core standard, along with three new services that comprise LTI Advantage.

This technology, which enables interoperability of grades and assignments and other data transfer, was in the center of the conversation of those of us who attended the Learning Impact Leadership Institute this week in San Diego, around six hundred professionals in total.

There are some LMS and portals early adopter achieving IMS certification, including Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, Sakai, Cengage, Tsugi, Kaltura, McGraw-Hill and VitalSource. They were all prominently featured during the conference [see the picture above].

LTI Advantage, built on LTI 1.3, deep links and enhances the integration by provisioning usernames and roles, and exchanging the assignments and grades.

During the conference several LTI Advantage bootcamp sessions took place.

Participants saw demonstrations, were immersed about Caliper Analytics and proctoring specifications, and learned how to migrate LTI 1.x implementations to LTI Advantage.

LTI has long been the gold standard in interoperability for edtech, enabling secure plug-and-play integration of learning systems.

Dr. Charles Severance, who invented this tool, told IBL News that LTI 1.3 is making a real difference and LMSs without it could be out of the market.

Many attendees showed their excitement around the new standards and mentioned the alignment between K12/Higher Education and the industry.

An example was Terry O’Heron, Director of Operations at Penn State University, who highlighted how LTI and open standards expedited the integration process at his institution, which uses CanvasLMS.



[IBL News was one of the three media sponsors of the 2019 Learning Impact Leadership Institute Conference]


Chatbots Gain Traction Among Businesses – Now a Course About Them on edX

Mikel Amigot | IBL News

Chatbot–based customer services are increasingly in demand. Advancements in AI technology, natural language processing, neural networks and speech recognition are making chatbots more effective and affordable. However, they are still in an early phase of development.

These revolutionary applications – which allow users to engage in interactive conversations using text or natural voice – have the potential to save businesses a fortune – over 8 billion annually by 2020 according to Juniper.

Artificial Intelligence Chatbot technology is not ready to replace top customers agents when assisting customers yet, but is advancing rapidly. A well-performed human experience is unbeatable.

Trying to trick customers by making them think that an AI chatbot is a real person only speaks poorly about that company. Customers get easily annoyed if they are asked the same information repeatedly. If they feel that an algorithm is in the works trying to match the best response, they will inevitably feel played.

Antonio Cangiano, an IBM manager who teaches a class on chatbots on edX, highlights that these tools “augment humans, not replace them.” Despite being imperfect, they represent a growing business opportunity.

The mentioned course helps to build, analyze, and deploy chatbots powered by IBM’s Watson. In addition, it teaches how to make money by selling chatbot services to clients, even by deploying them in WordPress sites.


Analysis: Sebastian Thrun, Creates the University of Silicon Valley and the Fourth Degree

Mikel Amigot | IBL News


Sebastian Thrun, Founder, and CEO at Udacity, is not shy when he claims, in a recent post, that his company will become the “University of Silicon Valley”. “Every student will now have technical mentors, expert reviewers, career coaches, and personalized learning plans on their side, in every Nanodegree program,” he writes before welcoming everyone “to the future of e-learning”.

Class Central criticizes Sebastian Thrun’s missteps with its restructuring plan, initiated in late 2018, with three rounds of layoffs of 40% of its employees, and offices around the world closed or downscaled. In addition, Vishal Makhijani stepped down as CEO and the Founder stepped in at the company he created in 2012. The startup, with over $90 million in revenue, now employs 300 full-time equivalent employees and about 60 contractors.

Sebastian Thrun, 52-years old and born in Solingen, Germany, is a tough entrepreneur, who completed his Ph.D. in computer science and statistics in 1995 at the University of Bonn. He taught computer science at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford University and worked at Google as VP, founding Google X and Google’s self-driving car team. He led the development of the robotic vehicle Stanley which won the 2015 DARPA Grand Challenge. Thurn is also the CEO of Kitty Hawk Corp, a flying-car startup. He is known for his work on probabilistic algorithms for robotics. At the age of 39, he was elected into the National Academy of Engineering in DC.

He describes himself as “a scientist, educator, inventor, and entrepreneur”. What Sebastian Thrun doesn’t highlight, however, is the fact that he is running a company with the iron rod of a Wall-Street CEO –which isn’t that cool in elitist Academia. Instead,
he claims that his “mission is to democratize education by providing lifelong learning to millions of students worldwide.”

A scientist whose company has achieved the status of a unicorn of $1 billion is certainly not an easy sell in higher education. Being a billionaire and a genius scientist only happens in a Hollywood play. And superheroes as Tony Stark in Iron Man, are fictitious.

What everyone we talked to agrees on is that Sebastian is a relentless innovator in online learning.

He is convinced that more support results in improved outcomes for students and helps them to find better jobs.

“Only 4% of students ever complete a MOOC. At present, our Nanodegree programs have a 34% graduation rate, thanks to the tireless efforts of the hard-charging Udacity team. When paired with our new personalized mentorship programs in past experiments, cohorts have commonly exceeded 60% graduation rates.” (…) “For our Nanodegree Plus pilot, an independent accounting firm verified that among our career-seeking and job-ready graduates, 84% found a new, better job within six months of graduation. And for that 84 %, the salaries went up, by an average of $24,000 per person. So much that on average, those students recouped their entire Udacity tuition fee in just three weeks.” (…) “No other online learning platform provides this level of end-to-end personalized mentorship.”

Along with tutoring and mentoring, another signature area of innovation at Udacity is credentialing.

Sebastian Thrun states that Udacity’s Nanodegree program –with 75,000 graduates and 200 industry partners– is “the new fourth degree”, beyond “the three common university degrees — the Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD.”

“The Nanodegree program is well on its way to becoming a de-facto standard for hiring and corporate training in the tech industry. This is in no small part because partners like Google, Amazon, Facebook, AT&T, IBM, Mercedes, and so many others help us develop our curricula, and hire our graduates. If Udacity was an actual university, we would be “accredited by industry.” Who would know better what it takes to get a job at your dream company than our own corporate partners?”

Grand statements. It would be interesting to know what Stanford University, and other elite schools and platforms like Coursera and edX think about all of this.

View: Reaching the Right Audience for Your Courses on Twitter

Mikel Amigot

Twitter outranks YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram in online marketing effectiveness among businesses in the U.S. Around 75% of B2B business and 65% of B2C business use Twitter, according to

To gain effectiveness on Twitter, there is just one single rule: create high-quality content for your target audience.

However, getting real followers is a tough business. A fast way to grow organically is by paying for a Twitter Ads campaign; naturally, after having great content.

The practice of buying fake followers and interactions on sites such as or is dangerous. This can damage your reputation. Twitter warns that it can result in an account suspension.

With a Twitter Ads Campaign, note that the acquisition of followers is not guaranteed. Truly, you are paying for the opportunity to reach the right people for your business.

These campaigns enable you to use a variety of methods to identify your target audience, reach engagement and pursue business conversions.

There are two ways to begin advertising on Twitter: click on “View Tweet Activity” and “Promote your Tweet”, or go on your profile to “Twitter Ads” and “Create Campaign”.

In your promotional effort to drive engagement and revenues for your online courses, keep in mind that Twitter is a medium designed to encourage meaningful conversations and connections among users. Adjusting your marketing to this reality, while being authentic, is the way to go.


View: Few Impactful AI Developments On Education At Scale

By Mikel Amigot 
Developments in AI are now accelerating at an unprecedented rate. Several corporations are deploying AI at scale, as we noticed this week at the O’Reilly AI Conference in New York. There is faster hardware for sensing, model training and model inference; we saw new cloud and on-premise tools, architectures and pipelines. Among those impactful implementations, we didn’t find emerging developments for our learning industry.
Only one exhibitor out of 28 was on education: a Chinese company called Squirrel AI Learning, It featured itself as “the first pure-play AI-powered adaptive education provider in China”. “We provide personalized and high-quality K-12 after-school tutoring at an affordable price”. This company, owned by Yixue Group, says it has opened 1,700 schools, with a teaching staff of 3,000 in 200 cities across China. Apparently, it accumulates funding of $15 million.
Is China so ahead in AI-driven education?
We attended the O’Reilly-organized press conference with the experts in that industry to inquire about it.
Martial Hebert, a leading researcher and Director of Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, explained to us that there are a number of elements of AI that can be used on education at scale such as facial recognition.
This is an application which some companies already use in China, including the parent organization of Open edX-based platform
However, the state of this technology seems to be at a very early stage.
The goal of all of these tools, including the data analytics approach, aligns with the adaptive and personalized learning requirement. It means being able to respond to the student’s interaction in real-time by automatically providing her with individual support.
In small traditional classrooms, the lack of personalized attention can be tackled with an AI-based face recognition solution, especially if there is no data-protection concern, as it happens in China.
The machine reads the learner’s expression in order to determine whether he or she is struggling to grasp a subject. If so, the instructor receives a notification and modifies the lessons to respond accordingly.
This can be done with a reduced number of students, but is it feasible in online education at scale?
Carnegie Mellon is working on it, but it doesn’t seem to be close.

Analysis: Certifications to Grow Your Developer Community

By Miguel Amigot II


The Problem

We all have too much information to process, too many things to do, and too many libraries, frameworks, and languages to learn. Moreover, everything has an opportunity cost… but not everything has an equal return.

In order to grow an open source community, it’s not enough to release great software, blog posts, and videos, if the truly relevant KPI’s have to do with developer engagements and statistics on GitHub like how many people interact with our repositories by starring, creating issues and submitting pull requests.

Since we compete for engineers’ very limited attention and time, we have to make it worth it for them to learn and benefit from our software.

From an incentive analysis standpoint, what can we do to attract and retain engineers’ attention? What is the real reason that they would choose to invest four hours of their time learning about some tools out of the many others that flood Hacker News every week?


The Solution: Certifications

Engineers need to learn the latest technology in order to advance their careers and establish with their employers, peers, and recruiters that they’ve learned it.

Consequently, if they have to choose between spending four hours per week learning X as opposed to Y, they’re going to focus on the tool that has the highest rate of return for their careers. All else being equal, if they can get some sort of certificate or credential from one of them, then that’s going to make it that more compelling. Especially if it’s one that can be posted on LinkedIn or another channel.

From the educator’s perspective, sharing certificates on social media is also going to viralize the offering and lead to a positive feedback loop, as peers are going to view and wonder what it takes to earn it.

The level of effort that goes into earning that certificate or microcredential can vary: sometimes it can be indicative of an understanding of the fundamentals of a topic while other times it can represent true mastery. The important thing is that the learners be able to obtain some sort of credit or recognition for the time they invest.

Case Study: NVIDIA Deep Learning Institute

In less than a year, the NVIDIA Deep Learning Institute at surpassed 100k users following a simple idea: in order to attract users, you have to make their time worth it.

NVIDIA launched a catalog of high-quality deep learning courses and provided learners with tangible, verifiable and visible certificates that they could post on LinkedIn and Twitter.

This allowed learners to go to their employers and prove that they know the topics since NVIDIA’s certificates cannot be earned unless students train models sufficiently well.

From a market standpoint, NVIDIA’s deep learning education program has become much more valuable than any other which does not issue a certificate.

Needless to say, many other organizations such as Udacity, Coursera, edX, IBM, Red Hat, Databricks and others have also followed this mantra, evidenced by the frequency with which their learners share their credentials on social media.

Next Steps: Certify Your Open Source Community

Grow your open source community by issuing certificates that explicitly make it worthwhile for engineers to learn your technologies.

Implement an online learning platform which compiles documentation, readings, videos and multimedia materials (most of which likely exist from conferences and blog posts, anyway) into attractive online courses which, ideally, won’t last for longer than four hours.

These courses will culminate in certifications or microcredentials, which can correspond to any of the following: understanding the fundamental use cases and codebase, maintenance, unit testing, extensions or applications to a certain industry.

They will also provide developers with a “how to” venue to get answers, collaborate with each other and, potentially, benefit from mentor support.

If you want to implement a high level of rigor in your courses then, like NVIDIA, issue labs that provide learners with programming environments where they must achieve certain outcomes in order to pass assignments.

In any case, the argument is clear: if you want engineers to invest time learning about your technologies, then you have to make it worth it for them.

View: OPMs As Banks and Enrollment Machines

By Mikel Amigot

Now that online degrees are widely accepted by employers in the U.S., there is a new demand for the Master’s program business and universities are considering the OPMs (Online Program Managers) outsourcing solution.

OPM for-profit companies are mostly providing financial, enrollment, marketing, and curriculum design services. In a way, they are both banks and student recruitment/retention machines.

2U is the leading publicly traded company, with a market value of over $4.5 billion.

Universities that partnered with an OPM have outperformed their peers in increasing online enrollment, a recent study by Eduventures found.

The problem lies in the fact that institutions do not want to give up academic control and don’t like the way OPMs make money –by attracting students and keeping them enrolled, many times with aggressive techniques.

They tend to forget that OPMs need a certain enrollment threshold –typically 2,000 students, according to two experts– to recoup their investment or turn a profit.

Non-profit colleges seem to be living under the assumption that corporations follow an altruistic idea of higher education. They are not, despite their fancy mission statements.

Many academic administrators and faculty members would be scandalized listening to some of the conversations happening on OPM’s enrollment call-centers, as IBL News checked. They would immediately break their contracts and refuse to hire these companies again. These practices are one of the best-kept secrets in the industry.

To be honest, OPMs also offer a proven track record when is about designing high-quality programs.

Moreover, by overcoming universities’ enrollment stagnation challenge, OPMs are keeping institutions flourishing.

We can romanticize the higher education landscape as much as we wish, but in the end, it is a business, a genuinely American business. And OPMs, despite some of their practices, are fit partners for universities in the common goal of generating revenues in the new digital economy while educating.

View: Master’s Degrees At Scale Must Follow a Stackable Approach

By Mikel Amigot

The new MOOC-based professional master’s degrees usually include fewer or no synchronous sessions, limited contact with leading instructors and more auto-graded assignments.

But more important than those features is stackability, as we are experiencing on Coursera’s MasterTrack or edX’s MicroMasters. This means that learners earn a credential and then apply for an on-campus or an online master’s degree program.

However, the crucial innovation is stackability.

Stackability is also a learning strategy, as James DeVaney (University at Michigan) and Matthew Rascoff (Duke University) innovation experts rightly explain on Inside Higher Ed. “Educational providers meet learners where they are, and provide the right level and amount of learning, and an appropriate credential, for their needs.”

At the same time, a stackable strategy can reduce the cost of the program without compromising quality, and can be the basis for admissions instead of the existing flawed tests.


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