New human-machine collaborations unlock society’s big challenges
Research exploring how humans work with machines to solve problems in fields ranging from space to sustainability has established the potential to create far-reaching change in children’s education. The test-bed project is part of a wider program set up by Oxford University with support from Amazon Web Services (AWS). Researchers have been as surprised by how quickly they have reached results as they are pleased with the outcomes.
One of the test-beds, the Oxford X-Reality Hub Ed Tech project, set out to investigate how virtual reality (VR) could transform the classroom experience and close the gap between disadvantaged groups of pupils who statistically do less well than their peers. The first phase involved 90 pupils in Oxfordshire who tested the VR tool that transported them to Victorian London to help their English Literature study of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. This was a collaboration between teachers, local government people, professionals in app development, graphic design, and a professional voice actor (who delivered the script).
The app, enabling students to learn remotely at their own pace, became more relevant as COVID-19 transformed the school experience for millions of pupils across the globe—and threatened to increase the attainment gap for children who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own.
Rapid setup, less cost, and AI techniques boost research
The research happened at a speed that was not possible before the cloud transformed the way Oxford University computes, stores, and analyses data. In less than four months, the Oxford X-Reality Hub showed that their virtual reality educational tool led to a 65% improvement in children’s educational outcomes. As the team’s associate researcher, Dr. Mattia Montanari, said, the project happened so fast because, instead of having to get funding for significant IT spend to support the work, they were able to stand up their project and analyse results quickly and at a low cost.
“The AWS team supporting the EdTech in the Cloud project introduced us to technology we did not know at such short reach. We created databases without worrying about the infrastructure. We experimented with new virtual reality platforms without leaving the browser. We used natural language processing (NLP) algorithms for the first time,” said Dr. Montanari.
The scientists, educators, and teenage participants share their experience in this short film.
The next stages
Oxford X-Reality Hub’s test bed project is only one of the new proofs of concept that AWS and the University of Oxford’s Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences division aim to enable through 2022. The projects explore human-machine collaboration using easy-to-use artificial intelligence (AI) tools and high-performance cloud computing platforms. Many will deploy AI and machine learning (ML) stacks, data lakes, and research and innovation workflows. In addition to the educational attainment gap in schoolchildren, problems the researchers are solving for include; materials engineering for space exploration; marine ecosystems; automated case descriptions and literature reviews in science research; classification of and digital access to cultural artefacts, including in the gardens, libraries, and museums in Oxford, and material modelling for engineering and design education.
It is exciting to see how access to analytics and ML technologies will transform the productivity of these projects, processing their existing scientific experimental datasets, industrial historical databases, and open data.
The cloud is driving agility and enables research to move rapidly from concept to solution. The problems being solved are real ones. Bringing learning alive for pupils who are traditionally hard to engage is a great outcome already. Imagine how powerful this could be if millions of pupils all over the world could virtually visit societies, eras, even outer space.
At AWS, the aim was to facilitate faster, more flexible, and secure science in the cloud and to support a new generation of researchers. Technology is an enabler for first-class scientific research. This is a virtuous circle: machines are helping humans learn, and humans are finding ways of interacting that help machines learn how to educate better.