Calculus is already synonymous with frustration and confusion for students around the world, but the coronavirus outbreak has forced students into an abrupt remote learning routine that adds an extra barrier to getting homework help.
Unfortunately, it's also a prerequisite for many degrees. In a thought piece recently published in Fast Company, Milena Marinova identified calculus as a barrier that keeps STEM talent from graduating and entering the field. Almost one-third of students either fail or drop out of their required calculus course, creating a "leak in the pipeline" that ultimately contributes to millions of STEM jobs left unfilled.
Since 2018, Marinova has served as head of artificial intelligence at Pearson, a leading education company whose name you'll probably recognize from your old textbooks. Last year Pearson committed to a digital-forward strategy driven by new technologies, including AI. Unlike traditional linear learning methods, AI can adapt to individual learning patterns and dramatically change how we learn, particularly for non-intuitive subjects like calculus.
Marinova put together a multi-disciplinary group to figure out how AI can demystify calculus. "If we could crack the code on the most difficult math discipline first, we could scale the technology across nearly any subject where people struggle to learn," Marinova explains. They teamed up with design firm Doberman and in just under a year released Aida, an AI-powered calculus tutor unlike any other.
Aida applies AI techniques to make calculus relevant and relatable, two words that are seldom used to describe the topic. Designed for Calculus 1 students, the app includes step-by-step demonstrations and a range of original videos developed to provide real-world context for calculus applications—crucial for developing real understanding.
In creating the interface, Doberman designers Nils Westerlund and Victor Essnert worked side-by-side with learning specialists and in response to user feedback. "We put prototypes in front of about 150 users throughout the entire process, from very dumb early prototypes all the way to the final, functional product," they told us in a recent interview. "We observed, asked questions, and built our understanding of what resonated and what people really were looking for in a math tutor in digital form."
Unlike existing digital tools that will readily solve the problem for you (and make homework a breeze) Aida's focus is taking the user on a learning journey and equipping them with the tools to succeed when they're flying solo. Students are encouraged to work out problems for themselves using pen and paper, but when they get stumped they can upload a photo of their work, and Aida will analyze the calculations line by line. They'll be prompted to revise their work three times before an answer is given.
Aida touts the same kind of advanced algorithms that power consumer apps like Netflix and Spotify that today's students grew up using. The more a student uses the app, the more the content is geared toward helping their specific areas of difficulty.
"AI as a technology is based on learning and that was a really interesting premise for us, that we were making a learning, learning platform—not only built on learning but also for learning," Westerlund and Essnert said. "We talked about this a lot internally, how can we find that poetic relationship between the learner and the machine, because it really is a dialogue."
Named after programming pioneer Ada Lovelace, Aida started as a math tutor but there are plans in place to expand the platform to other topics. The app is currently available to download for free on the Apple store through June 2020 and for $2.99 a month afterward. Considering that many people rely on expensive private tutors to get them through a semester of Calculus, this option will remain much more accessible. Needless to say, the app has also acquired even more relevance now that many students have to practice distance learning.
It's still the early days of AI tutors but combined with simple UI they hold a lot of potential for creating new and engaging learning experiences to empower students outside of the classroom. Regardless of the long-term impact, as Marinova writes, "if we can alleviate some of the pain points around calculus, we may see more students awarded STEM degrees, and we'll have a better shot at closing the talent gap in the near future."