Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Pearson In Your Pants

Pearson, the edu-product giant that hopes to eat the world, just announced a new product.

It's part of the overall Pearson vision-- and nobody does large-scale vision like Pearson. They see everything happening in a "digital ocean." They have ideas about an "assessment renaissance" so huge that it took me five posts to write about it (here's the shorter version). And just this summer, they announced their intention to go "digital first." That is, not exactly phasing out textbooks entirely, but focusing on the digital; instead of offering digitized versions of print textbooks, they'll now work the other way around. Fun fact: "62% of Pearson revenue now comes from digital or digitally enabled products and services that make lifelong education possible."

It's very much in tune with their website slogan, "Learning Without Limits." That seems like a big reach, but again, Pearson has a big vision. What other textbook publishing company would offer two categories on its K-12 page: Products & Services, and Thought Leadership.
So this week's announcement is in tune with all of that.

Meet Aida Calculus. It's an app you can put on your phone, only that makes it sound too pedestrian, like one more version of Candy Crush. Hey, Pearson! Can we have some overly florid martket-speak here?

Aida is a first in the education industry and an important milestone in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for learning. It's the only education app that uses multiple AI techniques from deep learning and reinforcement learning, customized for the purpose of tutoring students. The use of similar advanced AI algorithms is only seen in major consumer apps. Pearson is the first to apply that level of innovation in the education space.

Pearson CEO John Fallon boasts that "it's the first step we're making in redesigning education for the talent economy." It has thirty (30!!) "explainer videos." The Aida brand (which will be rolling out other edu-apps) takes its name from a combination of AI and Ada Lovelace (a 19th century mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron and just a hell of an interesting woman).

It can look at your homework, check your answers, offer tips. It uses AI that is the most AI-y AI that ever AI-ed in a piece of educational software. There's nothing AI-ier.

You can use the app for free for the rest of 2019, and if you want to try it and let me know how swell it is, I'd be glad to hear about it. I am in no position to try out a calculus app (my math education ground to a tortured halt somewhere around late-stage trigonometry).

Like all personalized [sic} learning, Aida offers several other implied promises, like someday you won't need a university or K-12 school-- you can just use your education voucher credits to buy apps for your phone that will automatically store your credentials on the blockchain and we'll never need any kind of formal education ever again. So I'm not going to encourage that by downloading it.

Will Aida actually work. Because ed tech folks have a history of overpromising everything all the time, with predictions and promotions that attempt to portray their product as an inevitable next step in human development. Maybe this time the super-duper AI will really deliver. Or not.

Actually, there's another reason I'm not trying out the app. Phone apps are like all those dumb games on Facebook (only worse) because if you're not careful, you are giving them al sorts of access to all the information about you that is stored on that phone. I'm not prepared to trust the folks who believe that the future belongs to those who have taken control of harvesting from the data ocean
(and who have already been hacked). Phone apps are convenient, a world of useful software right there in your pocket, but I'm not quite ready to let Pearson get into my pants just yet.

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