ASU awarded $3.75M grant to explore AI-enabled learning experiences

Someone's hand typing on a laptop while the other holds a collection of graphic illustrations of icons representing AI technology.

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On-demand tutors, creative companions and virtual lab assistants — these are a few examples of how generative artificial intelligence (AI) can enhance the learning experience. 

And a new grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) will support the development of one such idea led by the Learning Engineering Institute at Arizona State University. 

“We’re honored to have been selected by IES to advance the use of generative AI in academics,” said Danielle McNamara, executive director of the Learning Engineering Institute, part of ASU’s University Office of the Provost. “The $3.75 million grant will go a long way in helping us build out AI-enhanced applications that support proven teaching strategies,” continued McNamara, the primary investigator for the grant.

The announcement was made by IES earlier this year, noting that applications were invited to submit ideas involving “partnerships between researchers, product developers and education agencies to propose transformative solutions to major education problems that leverage advances in technology combined with research insights from the learning sciences.”

AI-enabled app for the modern, mobile learner

Under the grant, McNamara will partner with the team behind INFLO, an audio-based learning application. The app offers audio recordings of course content — think an audiobook for education — that includes lectures, discussions and summaries. The app allows a learner to listen, take notes and highlight topics on the go, better aligning with today’s increasingly mobile learner and world.

INFLO is part of ASU ScaleU, a functional higher education technology accelerator that integrates, tests, and validates innovative technologies at ASU. It provides early-stage education technology startups focused on improving student outcomes and institutional effectiveness with the opportunity to test their digital learning products in a complex and dynamic university environment.

McNamara and her team plan to build off of the app’s foundation to include additional features that encourage active learning strategies. AI — specifically generative AI — is key to delivering these new offerings.

“Combining sound pedagogical principles with AI-enhanced applications, this team of learning engineers and educational innovators are uniquely positioned to pursue what we are constantly striving to achieve at ASU — improved learning outcomes for our students, at scale, and delivered in new ways that fit their lives,” said Nancy Gonzales, executive vice president and university provost at ASU.

McNamara explained a few of the active learning strategies they plan to add to the INFLO app:

  • Self-explanation prompts that ask a learner to explain what they’ve learned, building connections between what they know, other topics they are currently learning in various classes, as well as the new information being delivered. 
  • Summarization tasks that ask students to reiterate the main points of what they are listening to as they are on the go. 
  • Question-answering challenges that assess the information a student has retained by asking a series of open-ended questions. 

“We know that active learning works to improve how students engage with content in different ways and contexts, and according to their needs and their goals,” McNamara said. “We’re using those strategies and thinking about ways to deliver these on the go for the increasingly mobile student.”

The team has set out to explore the use of AI-driven models to prompt learners with tasks and assignments that combine one or more of the learning strategies. For example, AI-enabled algorithms are being designed to provide feedback in real time. 

Collaboration is key

The grant — which requires cross-industry collaboration — aligns with ASU’s approach to partnerships, helping fuel innovation. 

McNamara and the team at the Learning Engineering Institute will work with industry partner INFLO, as well as leverage talent and teams from across the ASU enterprise: “So much of the work at ASU is collaborative in nature, so that’s something that is already built in our DNA,” McNamara said. 

For example, EdPlus at ASU will be instrumental in supporting best practices for online learning at scale. Meanwhile, ASU Enterprise Technology will help build the technical infrastructure required to offer the app as part of ASU’s course delivery. This team will also support the underlying research tools that will capture and demonstrate the efficacy of the project. 

The grant is supported by the Institute of Education Science, providing $3.75 million in funding over the course of three years, with a continuation option available after.  

“We’re excited for this opportunity to design and develop tools that use AI-driven solutions to offer learning at scale,” McNamara said. “We hope this work will add to ASU’s growing suite of tools and services that aim to meet learners wherever they are, using learning strategies proven to work.”

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