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HGSE's Chris Dede to Help Lead NSF Initiative to Reimagine Adult Learning

The $20 million collaboration will explore the potential for online education and artificial intelligence to prepare adult learners for a changing workforce.
Chris Dede

As rapid advances in technology change the skills needed in the job market, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is investing $20 million in a cross-disciplinary, collaborative effort — led in part by Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Chris Dede as co-principal investigator — to study the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and online learning to train and support adult learners in the STEM workforce. The initiative, known as the AI Institute for Adult Learning and Online Education (ALOE) will bring together a consortium of universities, nonprofits, and corporations, under the administrative leadership of the Georgia Research Alliance.

Many learning environments shifted to remote instruction this past year, raising a collective awareness of the limitations and the potential of virtual instruction. When it comes to preparing adults for a changing workforce, online education may be one way of ensuring that the workforce is able to adapt and fill new demands in the job market, as well as to fill the labor gaps that the coronavirus pandemic has revealed. Combining AI with research-backed practices around adult learning and online education could also make this avenue extremely effective and widespread.

“All of these [advances] add up to making online education more accessible and equitable,” says Dede, noting that the size of the initiative and its cross-sector collaborators will be able to rapidly and effectively fill a need in the workforce in a way that other efforts may not. “Providing all adults with continuous lifelong learning is an urgent priority. Small scale projects will not combine to create a coherent, scalable model, massive infrastructures from corporations lack depth in cognitive and learning sciences, and few institutions use an evidence-based, data-driven approach to designing online education.”

Changing technologies in the STEM fields means that workers need to consistently learn to navigate new programs and to develop new skills. Advances in AI could improve the quality of online learning by introducing systems and structures like virtual assistants and greater personalization to support a workforce of adult learners looking to build on or adapt their skillset. As one of 11 AI institutes funded by the NSF, ALOE hopes to explore and evaluate AI technologies, like virtual assistants, and simultaneously develop and evaluate models of learning for adults, like greater personalization.

 “The result of funding the ALOE Institute will be a transformation of adult learning: not just ‘doing things better,’ but ‘doing better things’ in effectiveness, efficiency, access, scale, and personalization.” — Chris Dede

“I am delighted to announce the establishment of new NSF national AI research institutes as we look to expand into all 50 states,” said National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in announcing the establishment of ALOE and the other 10 AI institutes. “These institutes are hubs for academia, industry and government to accelerate discovery and innovation in AI. They lead to new capabilities that improve our lives from medicine to entertainment to transportation and cybersecurity while growing the economy and maintaining global competitiveness.”

In addition to Dede, the ALOE team will also include experts in cognitive and learning science, computer science, and education from Arizona State University, Drexel University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, as well as the Technical College System of Georgia. Partnerships with the non-profits IMS Global and the Georgia research Alliance and corporations like IBM, Boeing, and Wiley will also be essential to advancing and applying the research. 

The project will be headquartered at Georgia Tech and the Georgia Research Alliance will administer the grant over the next five years. 

This cross-sector, cross-disciplinary collaboration ultimately aims to make online education more equitable and effective. “The result of funding the ALOE Institute will be a transformation of adult learning: not just ‘doing things better,’ but ‘doing better things’ in effectiveness, efficiency, access, scale, and personalization,” says Dede.

Learn more about the NSF's National AI Research Institutes.