Colorado State, Meet Cognii: Artificial Intelligence in Education

Psychology students at Colorado State University will be getting a technological boost next semester, thanks to a new partnership between the Fort Collins, CO-based school and Boston-based technology startup Cognii.

Founded in 2013, Cognii will work with CSU faculty members to integrate smart software into two undergraduate psychology courses centered on human development and family studies, as well as one graduate course in industrial/organizational psychology this fall. All of the courses will be offered exclusively online, according to Mike Palmquist, associate provost for instructional innovation at Colorado State.

Cognii and CSU announced the new partnership in a press release in May.

The Cognii-powered programs at CSU will use natural language processing to offer instant feedback to students’ open-answer essays, according to Dee Kanejiya, CEO and founder of Cognii. Kanejiya said the technology will function in a similar way to voice-command programs like Siri on Apple’s iPhone, but will flip the script on who is steering the conversation.

“When you interact with Siri on the iPhone, you ask the question … and it comes back with an answer,” he said. “Here, Cognii asks the question to the student, the student has to answer the question, and then Cognii gathers to what extent they are accurate and how they can improve their answer.”

Kanejiya said that Cognii is actively trying to implement its technologies in virtual classrooms across the country, in an effort to quell the lack of in-person assistance offered in such academic programs.

“The rise of online courses has led to the realization of this problem that it’s really easy to set up a course with some media lectures and multiple-choice quizzes, but that has not led to the learning outcomes … that happen when you have a physical, proximity-based education setting,” he said.

Cognii is already integrating its software into several online degree programs, including a large presence at Southern New Hampshire University, according to Kanejiya.

He said that on top of helping students, online tools like those offered by Cognii free instructors from reading through hundreds of individual responses.

The software “helps instructors significantly in terms of increasing their productivity for what they are currently doing, or providing them an additional level of insight that they formerly didn’t have,” Kanejiya said. It also provides an array of analytics that let professors know how students are faring with particular topics within a specific course.

“Cognii’s tools will allow us to provide formative feedback to students as they work on their writing-to-learn activities,” Colorado State’s Palmquist wrote in an e-mail. “The writing that professors will see should be clearer and better supported than they might otherwise see.”

Palmquist said that older technologies that attempted to implement smart, so-called artificial intelligence programs into classrooms were widely despised in the academic community due to their assault on the learning process. “In general, there has been a great deal of criticism of computer-based response to writers,” he wrote. “I’m a writing scholar and have been part of a majority that has argued against summative response to writing from computers.”

Cognii “differs from summative response in both intent and process,” Palmquist said. He added that the company’s programs are more passive and therefore give instructors more control over when in the process feedback is received.

The addition of Cognii at CSU marks a step forward in the ongoing quest to integrate more artificial intelligence technologies with education, a process that has lagged behind similar efforts in other fields, according to Kaneijya.

“We believe that AI has a significant role to play in the transformation of education,” he said. “Compared to other industries where AI has already helped us in terms of efficiency or productivity or work flow, education has been a little bit slow in developing this kind of innovation. But it is coming to the party.”

Indeed, many aspects of online learning still leave much to be desired, according to a report released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Online Education Policy Initiative in April. The report detailed the myriad shortcomings of online education, and emphasized the need for blending digital improvements with in-person instruction.

“Technology will not replace the unique contributions teachers make to education through their perception, judgment, creativity, expertise, situational awareness, and personality,” according to the report. “But it can increase the scale at which they can operate effectively.”

Matthew Iklé, a professor of computer science and artificial intelligence researcher at Adams State University in Alamosa, CO, said that the need for in-person learning increases as the course material becomes more complex. He said that he’s wary of offering entirely online classes to graduate students.

“When you start getting into more advanced topics, there’s going to still be a need for that more intimate relationship with the student,” Iklé said. “It could be used in graduate courses for standards material, but as you start pushing the boundaries of knowledge, at least in its current state, I don’t see that [AI] technology would be very useful.”

Time will tell at Colorado State and other universities. How exactly the Cognii software will be blended with the CSU curriculum will be fleshed out by faculty members and Cognii developers this summer, according to Palmquist.

Quincy Snowdon is a staff writer with the Aurora Sentinel, reporting on the arts, entertainment and business. He lives in Denver. Follow @QuincySnowdon

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