Is artificial intelligence (AI) really the tool to help people make sense of data, to bring insights, ideas, better decisions and happier outcomes? Is it something that will mainstream in 2020 or yet another over-hyped concept in learning and development (L&D)? Here, Judith Christian-Carter takes a look at what the word on the L&D street is saying about AI, and its uses and potential.

A year has passed since the article Using AI in L&D: Opportunity or Threat? was published and during this time a considerable amount has happened as far as AI and L&D are concerned. “Over the past decade algorithms have become a lot smarter and data sets a lot larger, mostly thanks to digitisation. This means that there are now many more areas where AI outperforms human intelligence in quality, not just speed. Human parity speech recognition has now been achieved and one tangible consequence of this has been the introduction of Alexa to many homes.” (Filtered, 2018). So can the use of AI in L&D deliver automated and personalised learning, and can it really be a boon to L&D administration? Read on and decide for yourself.

Using AI in learning

AI is the theory and development of computer systems that are able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and language translation. As far as L&D is concerned, AI has the potential to undertake data-driven analysis, make fast decisions and recommend areas of improvement for individual learners.

We are already at the point where AI can make learning more interactive and personalised, as well as be faster and more cost-effective. Organisations using AI-enabled learning can guide and support learners at their own pace and drip-feed information to new employees.

AI is seen by some as the glue that will eventually enhance not only the internet of things (IoT) but also virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). The potential of AI in online learning is gathering momentum in the UK, backed up by an investment of £30 million in the Government’s latest industrial strategy.

AI can identify points where a learner is struggling and why, as well as the speed at which questions are answered. Naturally, there are some people who think that AI is designed to replace trainers and teachers, instead of seeing AI technologies as a support which enable them to focus on the actual human aspects of learning. “Artificial flavouring is just synthetic flavouring, made to resemble natural flavouring. Artificial intelligence is just synthetic intelligence, made to resemble natural ie human intelligence.” (Filtered, 2018).

Automated and personalised learning

Over the years, research has shown that one-to-one learning is extremely effective but not cost-effective. Learning professionals the world over have yearned to make learning more personalised simply because they know how effective this can be. Now, through the use of AI technologies, learning can not only be personalised but automated as well.

AI, which uses a combination of data collection and machine learning, can produce automated learning by being responsive to learners’ needs. Essentially, the result is a system that adapts intelligently to people’s requests and allows them to take control of their own learning. To achieve this, three functionalities combine.

  1. A deep, global search where learning content and the way it’s used in an organisation is analysed deeply to improve sharing of both traditional learning and user-contributed assets.

  2. Content assets are tagged automatically to facilitate categorisation and search, without the need to do so manually.

  3. As content is uploaded, AI pre-generates a list of people within an organisation who have shown interest in content deemed to be similar, which allows content contributions to be shared with specific audiences.

If this isn’t sufficiently mind-blowing, consider this: soon a machine will have the ability to create new learning content and thereby improve the personalisation of learning even further. It is also a certainty that AI will produce personalised learning environments with content that adapts as necessary, of its volition, to meet the individual needs of different learners.

Using AI in L&D administration

For those L&D professionals who spend a significant proportion of their time designing course catalogues for their learners, the use of AI will alleviate to a substantial degree the time currently spent undertaking this task. By applying the right metadata, a machine can develop and provide course catalogues to specific users based on their roles and habits through the use of various recommendation engines. Using AI in this way will allow L&D professionals to focus on far more important and meaningful tasks.

Other administrative tasks can also be automated through the use of AI, such as course enrolment triggered by events or criteria. For example, there has been a change in regulation related to money lending. All bank staff who lend money are immediately enrolled onto the new course, take a test and get certified, so they can provide evidence of compliance when required, automatically. The automated curation and aggregation of content from external sources will also free up time for the busy L&D professional, as will the use of a virtual coach (or chatbot). No longer will the L&D professional have to take time to find suitable internal subject matter experts, as the latter will have already trained a virtual coach, which then over time gathers more and more knowledge to impart to learners, providing immediate answers to their questions. Where the virtual coach is unable to answer a question, AI automatically contacts an expert to provide the correct answer. However, the next time the same question is asked, the virtual coach knows the answer and can respond without the need for human intervention.

Adopting AI in L&D

There are some pundits who say that AI will be mainstream in L&D in 2020. AI today is a tool that helps make sense of all L&D and HR data, to provide insights and ideas, to make better decisions and outcomes.

Introducing AI into an organisation does need some thought and careful planning but the general advice is to ease into it gently. The two easiest options are either to use an existing vendor’s software that has cognitive capabilities or to pick a small project which can be achieved easily working with a suitable vendor. For example, the project could be to make better use of the learning content already available, by automating content curation, from which valid recommendations can be made to learners to meet their needs on a just-in-time basis.

Some useful tips

To ensure that the use of AI is launched successfully in an organisation and becomes part of its culture, L&D professionals are advised to ensure the following.

  • Keep communications interesting to avoid boredom.

  • Use existing communication channels so people can share learning content with each other.

  • Reinforce positive behaviour by incentivising engagement with AI.

  • Talk with team managers about incorporating learning time into the working day.

  • Get managers and senior staff to lead the change of learning through AI by recommending learning assets they have used and think are worthwhile to their teams.

“We think there’s an extra poignancy to all this for us. As learning professionals we should be especially interested in how we get machines to emulate human learning. We should all have something in particular to say about machine learning. And there’s no better way than to try, dabble and experiment.” (Josh Bersin, 2018).

Last reviewed 5 December 2018