For this instalment of the AI in Education: Here and Now series, we hear from Petroc College on how they are harnessing artificial intelligence to improve outcomes for students
Petroc College’s leap into using AI in education began in 2019 when a Digital Leaders programme brought a focus and confidence to the College’s embrace of the benefits of data science. The programme, run by external digital transformation consultants Cosmic, enabled college leaders to appreciate digital global trends, current functionality and the potential of new tech to support effective learning. It gave leaders the confidence to ‘jump in’, to experiment, and to innovate, knowing that continued learning needed to be part of the culture at the college and that it was not necessary to know all the answers before starting to tackle the questions.
To raise the benefits of AI in education, a new College strategy focused on personalisation and narrowing the gaps between learners: there was a need to innovate in the way the college helped its learners to succeed. Taking advantage of the boom in the artificial intelligence market and the increase in educational platforms offering AI functionality, Petroc has, to date, collaborated with two market-leading brands to realise the benefits of AI in education.
Personalising learning with the help of CENTURY
With our learners facing a multitude of challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic, attendance and attainment for those learners struggling to reach a Grade 4 in English and maths was in danger of losing ground to even more pressing personal needs. Yet, as a college, Petroc knew that it was these grades that were crucial to the future success and wellbeing of these learners. Fortunately, the CENTURY AI platform offered bespoke learning in English and maths by dynamically adapting to the individual’s learning needs, offering adaptive learning through machine learning-driven questioning and pedagogy to plug knowledge gaps and boost confidence.
Each learner studying maths and English at Petroc undertakes a diagnostic with CENTURY. The student can select the exam board, qualification and level. The robust process identifies specific gaps in learning and creates a learning pathway of ‘nuggets’. Each nugget represents a step on the journey to understanding and creates an almost mastery approach to learning.
Personalised learning empowers learners as they can see progress and a clear pathway to passing the course. Every time a learner makes an error, a question will then appear that allows them to take a step back in the process. Cementing knowledge at each step creates a more secure scaffold for further learning. Learners are also encouraged to identify emojis that represent their feelings during the process. Learning is an emotional process, and this factors into the pace of teaching.
With CENTURY, educators have access to live analysis and reports, enabling them to focus their time and attention on those learners at highest risk of not achieving. The data also informs curriculum delivery as it reports on the whole cohort, highlighting common gaps in understanding.
Used as part of a research project combining meta-cognitive support and coaching, in the academic year 2020-21, using Century AI, Petroc’s English and maths results improved by 25% and, with Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGS) being the method of assessment, required additional and robust verification due to the significant increase in achievement. Learners overwhelmingly reported an increase in confidence and, while attendance for these learners remains the biggest barrier to learning, the flexibility and individuality of the Century AI platform goes some way towards overcoming this.
Analysing student needs with Civitas Learning
In December 2020, Petroc began another AI journey, this time with Civitas Learning, an American organisation whose student success intelligence platform leverages the College’s unique student data to improve student outcomes.
Of course, Petroc already utilises many interventions to support learners who may be struggling, but inevitably there are always some whose struggles fall beneath the radar. The Civitas Inspire persistence predictions are updated daily, allowing educators to immediately identify a learner who may be experiencing difficulties, possibly before there are any obvious indicators. Civitas Impact analyses the efficacy of individual interventions, and will, in time, give educators a menu of interventions proven to be effective with a specific demographic of learner.
While Civitas is a well-known brand in the States, and has a number of HE customers in the UK, Petroc is its first UK FE College. This has been a true collaboration between Civitas and Petroc over the last academic year to adapt the American Community College Model into a British FE-centric platform.
The Civitas International Senior Consultant assigned to Petroc has been a constant supportive presence. The Civitas way of working is to use monthly milestone events to celebrate progress made, explore the next steps and tackle any issues arising. These milestone events would normally be held over 2-3 days in person at the College, but of course that has not been possible in these unprecedented times. Instead, milestone meetings have taken place over zoom, which has the advantage of easily including colleagues from the US. Key milestones have been bringing the team together at the beginning, reaching the product testing stage, and now beginning the live rollout of the platform across the College.
For Petroc, the journey has, at times, felt laborious and slow, and the team has sometimes struggled to maintain enthusiasm amongst educators. This is where the seemingly inexhaustible positivity of the Civitas team has been invaluable, and their methodical approach has paid off. The detailed and methodical approach to bringing Civitas Inspire to Petroc has made the journey relatively long. Over the last 18 months FE educators have faced massive challenges with CAGS, TAGS, online and blended learning, and a constantly changing covid landscape. All large-scale projects tend to hit an energy wall occasionally, and it is at these moments that the Civitas team have stepped up immediately, giving their understanding, support, and reassurance. Links have been made between Petroc and other Civitas clients, problem solving meetings have been held, and milestones have been adapted where needed, to give flexibility but keep the project on track.
Less than twelve months since its inception Civitas Learning’s Inspire platform is going live at Petroc, using existing student data to predict persistence for individual learners, and enabling educators to track those learners and focus targeted, supportive interventions at those at greatest risk of under-achieving. Persistence is the measure used in the platform to predict the likelihood of a learner “persisting” with their studies to the completion of their course and is given as a percentage figure. The persistence figure for a learner is derived from many data sources such as attendance, grade predictions, personal information, and comparative data.
Petroc’s journey with Civitas has only just begun, and the impact on learner progression is yet to be seen and analysed. However, conversations with an American Community College who are five years ahead of Petroc on this, have given Petroc a valuable insight into the exciting possibilities ahead for improving learner progression and performance through AI-led targeted interventions and impact analysis.
The next phase of the Petroc/Civitas programme, Civitas Impact, will enable Petroc to analyse existing interventions such as lunchtime study groups, aspire academies, and one-to-one support, for their impact on learner persistence and outcomes. This will give Petroc the information required to refine and target interventions for maximum effectiveness.
For example: Aspire academies are open to all study programme learners but are voluntary to join. Civitas Impact will compare the persistence and outcomes of those who join against those who don’t, using learners whose data is similar, enabling Petroc to know the efficacy of the Aspire academies. At a more nuanced level, the data may show that the Aspire academies have more impact on learners from a specific demographic. With this knowledge, Petroc can proactively nudge learners within this demographic towards the academies.
Looking to the horizon
The use of AI in education is not just inevitable, it is being actively embraced and explored at Petroc, with the two platforms of Century AI and Civitas Learning just the start of this exciting vision for the future. The important thing was to start somewhere! The experience on these projects has led to wider discussions about potential future AI applications from supported learning to IAG chatbots and even accounting practices.