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AI is here to stay: How artificial intelligence is changing the landscape of Learning and Development

If the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) sounds straight out of a science fiction movie to you, you're not alone. We've heard the stories of machines intelligent enough to outsmart us and with enough processing power to take control over our cars, homes, and coffee makers. You've probably heard that AI is coming, and it is the way of the future. However, artificial intelligence is already here, and you probably missed its subtle arrival.


AI has been present in our lives for quite some time. While the degree of sophistication increases exponentially, AI arrived without much fanfare and has become a normal part of our lives, integrating itself into the most mundane tasks. For instance, think about the last time you opened an application on your phone or a programme on your computer, and it was able to predict your needs.


This can stretch from predictive text messaging on some phone to predictive scheduling on others. Some people will have even experienced their phone responding to an email or text message from a colleague to ask whether an appointment should be added to your calendar. Now that's when you stop and think - that's a smart machine!


AI, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning


Machines learn, or have the ability to learn, and to be trained by us. The concept of machine learning might seem foreign to those of us who are still trying to unpack the perfect formula for training adults, but artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning are not buzzwords or fads. Like electricity or the internet, they are quickly becoming fully integrated into our way of life and are here to stay.


The 1950s presented us with colour television broadcasting, Mr. Potato Head, and the term "artificial intelligence", which at that time was an early concept around automation and computer reasoning that has evolved over the years to what we experience today. Defined by Google as "the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages," AI makes it possible for machines to learn from experience and data in order to simulate human tasks.


From there we grew to understand machine learning in the 1980s as a process allowing computers to learn without being programmed to do so. We are now entering the realm of exploring deep learning, that is, techniques through which computer programmes learn complex patterns, sort through large amounts of data and can be used for image and speech recognition purposes.


While we continue to challenge machines in a chess match with little success, we can be rest assured that for now machines do what humans tell them to do, and they largely react to our own behaviour. With that in mind, let's explore how artificial intelligence plays a part in three areas of Learning and Development and how you can harness its power for good.


Content curation and creation made easy


One way artificial intelligence is changing the landscape is in its ability to recognise and classify content. How many times have you been working on putting together a piece of learning and have spent a countless number of hours finding relevant materials, looking for case studies, or even looking for a relevant image to add to your e-learning? Our human brains have limited capacity to sift through content before we become tired. In reality, we curate content all day - we save and share articles on LinkedIn and Facebook, share photos on Instagram and Twitter, write Tweets, like videos on YouTube, listen to podcasts, use productivity apps to store knowledge, and search on Google. Imagine having the ability to sort, categorise, store, and make relevant sense of all of the information you consume around certain topics each day. AI can do that and more.


Tailoring content to users becomes a natural act when using AI to create and curate content. Online content providers like Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera, Udemy, EdX, Lynda, and many others gather a massive amount of data from users. With AI, they can tailor the experience for each user, suggest content, create lesson plans, help the learner create a comprehensive learning plan, and most importantly personalise the experience to best suit the learner. You don't need to be a big player here - start small and play with the data you already have. Make artificial intelligence work for you when curating and creating learning.


Learner engagement by design


AI is data driven, and data that are captured through our behaviours and content-based interactions provide us with the ability to create predictive models and forecast where to invest our effort when creating and consuming learning. Want to understand learner engagement? Look at the data. Use AI to help you understand how learners interact with your content, and enable engagement with the content that otherwise might be missed. Smart systems can help learners navigate through your learning sessions and review content as needed at a later date.


In the education sector, AI is being used to help students digest content in a more manageable manner by creating smart study guides that summarise a chapter's key concepts, integrate portions of the text highlighted by students, and compile a comprehensive study package with practice assessments, flashcards, and other useful tools. Think about the last time you learned something by interacting and collaborating with a group. What happens when a learner doesn't have a community with which to share in relation to the content they are learning? A virtual assistant or facilitator can be summoned at any time and have human-like interactions with a learner who may benefit from engaging with the content in the form of a discussion.


A virtual assistant for the learning professional


As responsible learning professionals, we always put the learner first, but what about us? Can we benefit personally from using systems to manage our interactions as learning professionals? The answer as you may have guessed is yes. We can employ AI to work for us in task automation, and we can ask it to help us perform a variety of tasks. Instead of sorting through Excel sheets to track learning or sifting through reports from your Learning Management System - delegate those tasks! Employ a virtual assistant to take care of your admin. work so you can reduce the time it takes you to make sense of data. Chatbots can be a great tool to aid you in consultation with a new client. Not convinced? Test it - a well-crafted bot will respond with language indiscernible to that of a live person.


As artificial intelligence evolves, we will see virtual facilitators and virtual coaches engaging with learners in real time, either in virtual or real space. When partnered with other technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality, an artificially intelligent virtual facilitator can do the heavy lifting for you. Imagine designing a lesson, delivering it once and then teaching a machine to deliver it after that. Although we are still not accustomed to interactions of this kind, the gap in the uncanny valley is rapidly closing, and we will find ourselves engaging with smart machines as both users and consumers of products and content.


The future is now


At the New Zealand Association for Training and Development Conference held in May this year, learning professionals from all sectors across the country engaged in stimulating conversations around how we can harness technology to maximise business and learning impact. We shared our digital strategies (or lack thereof) and spoke about how we as learning professionals manage our own learning around applications of technologies like AI. AI has become a major area of focus in the Learning and Development space.


It is important that we recognise that AI is a game-changer for learning professionals. Now more than ever, we can be deeply attuned to the needs of our learners, to how they consume and process content, to how we curate and create learning and to how we as professionals and lifelong learners ensure that we have the tools at our disposal to enable our organisations to succeed.


References are available on request.

Chris C. Ortiz is a Senior Learning and Development Consultant and a geek interested in people, technology, and making the world a better place. She holds a Masters degree in International HR Management, a New Zealand Certificate in Adult and Tertiary Teaching, and has worked in Human Resources and Talent Development in Washington DC, Seattle, and New Zealand. Chris is a Chartered Member of the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand, recognised for her specialty in Learning and Development and serves on the executive committee of the New Zealand Association for Training and Development, Wellington Branch.





Imagine designing a lesson, delivering it once and then teaching a machine to deliver it after t