Until recently, hiring a private tutor after school hours was the traditional way a school could offer a remedial course to students with learning gaps. For families, the problem and the solution were similar. However, not everyone could pay for this service, and even when they could, it was almost impossible to ensure personalized learning tailored to the knowledge and learning pace of each student.
Owing to the limitations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many Ecuadorian higher education students began the year with significant learning gaps. In response, the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (SENESCYT), with World Bank support, began to provide artificial-intelligence (AI) assisted academic support in math to students beginning their tertiary education. Using AI enabled access to large-scale, low-cost academic remediation programs.
Drawing on students’ strengths and weaknesses and on what they already know and are ready to learn, the new AI-powered learning platform has developed smart tutors capable of supporting students and teachers in education processes.
Since January 2021, the platform has offered support to more than 14,000 students in the technical and technological higher education system. The program was implemented in more than 400 courses of different technical and technological study programs, with the support and participation of over 300 teachers.
When they began the program, students mastered an average of just 25 percent of the math curriculum needed to ensure success in their studies. After using the platform for 16 consecutive weeks, their mastery of these contents reached 68.7 percent, representing an increase in curricular learning of 8 percent to 10 percent monthly. This significant achievement equals roughly the amount of "learning" that students would acquire after a full year of schooling.
As Diego Angel-Urdinola, Senior Economist for the Education Global Practice at the World Bank, said, "This is a pioneering experience in Latin America and the Caribbean with significant potential to improve learning outcomes given its ability to provide content tailored to students’ learning needs, commonly known as ‘teaching at the right level’.”
The platform also offers important advantages, including reduction of school administrative red tape; increased learning efficiency; and increased student engagement and lower levels of frustration, which help reduce dropout rates.
Despite its significant potential, the scaling up of this type of tool presents major challenges. The main one is to ensure that students and teachers accept and use the platform. For example, during the implementation of the current platform, some students and teachers with access to the platform opted not to use it. A combination of several factors may explain this decision, such as inadequate access to infrastructure (connectivity, internet and equipment), lack of information or lack of motivation.
In the future, in Ecuador and worldwide, personalized online education could be used in other remedial programs, in addition to mathematics. Customizing learning to student needs should be taken advantage of in all study programs, especially in situations where there is limited access to in-person classes.