Paul Johansen is Chief Technology Officer at Edmentum, the leading provider of online learning programs for educators. Paul serves on the LTI Product Steering Committee, and previously directed Deloitte’s shared services software development team. He holds degrees in Computer Science and Marketing from the University of Minnesota and an MBA from MIT. You can find Paul on LinkedIn here and on his Edmentum blog here.
Even prior to the remote and hybrid learning environment in 2020, edtech companies were leveraging AI and automation to create better learning experiences and drive positive student outcomes. Historically, the technology has handled two main functions: offloading administrative tasks for teachers, and creating more personalized learning experiences for students. Now, AI is beginning to offer strategic recommendations to teachers, too.
To achieve all of these objectives, earlier this year Edmentum launched the Edmentum Online Navigator (EON), an AI-based chatbot. EON frees up teachers by offloading administrative responsibilities like entering students into the system and setting up classes. It can also serve as a recommendation engine for teachers, suggesting activities or additional curriculum based on what a student or class needs. For example, it may suggest a full-class exercise to review a bit of material, offer additional resources for one particular student based on their learning trajectory or share insight into how other teachers within the district have been successful in this unit. The combination of greater efficiency and strategic recommendations allows teachers to spend more time with students, and ensure that time is as impactful as possible.
When Paul first entered the edtech space just over ten years ago, there were many concerns about technology replacing teachers. But this, he says, has never been the intent. In fact, he argues that the time teachers spend interacting and connecting with their students is the most important element of any education experience. AI and automation are not here to replace that time; they are here to create more of it. Edtech solutions like Edmentum are designed specifically to support teachers—to offload the more monotonous tasks, make strategic recommendations and free them to spend more time engaging with their students.
This year, school looks different than it ever has before with the rise of remote and hybrid learning. Students are learning more independently than ever, and teachers don’t have the benefit of sitting in front of a classroom of 30 students and engaging 1:1 with them throughout the day. Teachers, who Paul calls “some of the busiest people on the planet” are under increased strain this year as they adapt to a new educational normal. They almost certainly do not have time to research additional activities, or rethink their existing methods. Fortunately, this is one emerging area where AI can help.
In this environment, AI and automation have taken on increased importance. AI-powered tools like EON can serve as a recommendation engine for teachers, suggesting additional resources, activities or strategies that have been proven successful elsewhere. This creates a deeper, ever-improving learning experience for students without placing increased strain on teachers to research and execute new strategies independently. This recommendation capability can also empower teachers to be more effective on the backend; AI can suggest a new platform feature, or a new type of dashboard that can provide fresh insights, helping teachers make better use of their time and energy. As a result, more teachers, students and parents are using Edmentum’s solutions than ever before to create an optimal remote learning experience.
Paul believes that AI not only has the power to make education more effective, but also more equitable. He points to the example of embedding AI into augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) applications. This use case not only creates an even more immersive experience for students, remotely or in-person, but also breaks down financial and accessibility barriers that have long existed in education. Activities like going to the museum, or even going on a trip, have historically been relegated to a subset of students; with AI, AR and VR, these valuable learning experiences could be opened up to all students.
EPISODE 16: PAUL JOHANSEN
Jim Freeze Hi! And welcome. I’m Jim Freeze, and this is The ConversAItion, a podcast airing viewpoints on the impact of artificial intelligence on business and society.
It’s no secret that education looks drastically different today than it did just six months ago. Most schools have kicked the year off with a hybrid education model, while others have gone entirely remote. Through all of these changes, technology has played a key role in keeping students and educators connected and productive.
On this episode of The ConversAItion, we’ll dive into the growing role of AI in remote education. We’re speaking with Paul Johansen, the Chief Technology Officer at Edmentum, one of the first online learning companies in the country, which today serves over 8,000 school districts across the US and UK.
Paul, welcome to the show!
Paul Johansen Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Jim Freeze Yeah. We’re thrilled you’re here. To begin with, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you ended up at Edmentum? What originally drew you to the EdTech space?
Paul Johansen Sure. My background is all in software and architecture, so kind of a traditional computer science background. I started doing consulting, worked at some larger companies, Microsoft back in the late ’90s, some great foundational pieces there, and then did some work in the telecom industry, some work consulting. And then about 11 years ago, I had a colleague give me a call and say, “Hey, I’m at …” at that time, it was called Plato Learning, “I’m at Plato Learning, and we’re doing some really cool things.”
At that time, we were making a transition from shipping out CDs and servers to schools to bringing everything fully online, basically, a software as a service. And so, I joined in 2009 as the Chief Architect to help that transition. And then later, a couple of years later, I moved into the Chief Technology Officer role that I’ve been in since.
The EdTech industry is super interesting. There’s so much there from a technology perspective. So, for a technologist at heart, like myself, there’s really hard problems to solve. There’s millions of students using your products. You kind of get the best of technology, but you also get the best of working on a mission. That’s what really drew me into Edmentum and what has had me stay there for 11 years and really what drives the people that are part of both my team as well as the organization as a whole is that mission-driven aspect of being able to serve students and really make a difference in society with the great work we do in technology.
Jim Freeze Yeah, it’s interesting. There probably aren’t a lot of executives out there who have as much domain expertise, as many years of experience in EdTech as you do. So, from your experience and your perspective, could you talk a little bit more about artificial intelligence in education.
Paul Johansen Yeah. I think if you think about AI and education, really, there’s been a few different areas that have been targeted, but one primarily has been around individualizing education for students. As EdTech and online learning has evolved, it’s gone from kind of the same for every student to being very adaptive.
AI plays a very important role in being able to take curriculum, being able to take a string of curriculum and trying to determine, what’s the right playlist for a student of curriculum that that specific student needs, based on what the system understands about their needs, and how can the software and the curriculum adapt to those specific students’ needs? Certainly, there has been adaptation or adaptive learning that has been a big part of what AI brings to education.
There’s also a lot of innovation happening around getting deeper into the learning. There’s really cool startup companies that are doing things around reading, going specific with early reading skills and being able to really understand deeply what a student’s progression through their reading skills are. And then of course, there’s a lot of innovation with some of the bigger devices and companies that we know, with Alexa and being able to use skills to teach students. So, there’s neat things happening kind of across the device spectrum as well.
Jim Freeze Yeah, that’s very interesting. I mean, there’s probably a lot in there that people didn’t know was happening. This has been kind of a weird year for everybody and every business. Like everything else this year, I’m sure education has looked a lot different. Since remote and kind of hybrid learning have become more of the norm, how has the role of AI grown or changed in the education sector as a result of our experiences this past year?
Paul Johansen Yeah. I think, this year, just everything within the EdTech sector is magnified, and I think AI is part of that overall magnification of the industry. As an industry as a whole, we have more students using our programs than ever, more teachers using our programs than ever. And so, when you’re doing that and when you’re going through it, again, it’s trying to find the best ways to allow a teacher to use a curriculum and to use educational software. The best ways to find students the right lessons and the right pieces of curriculum to work on.
And so, I think, when we look at what’s happened with AI, it’s basically…AI can serve such an important role as teachers and students find their way in this new world in terms of, again, automating, making that easier, finding the right things. As students are more independent learners than ever, as teachers need to find ways to be efficient and find ways to connect with students when they’re not seeing them face-to-face, when there’s not 30 smiling students in front of them in the classroom, how do they do that?
AI can play an important role in being a tool to both students and teachers. I think that’s where we’ve seen that, again, kind of as part of the overall magnification of the industry, we’ve seen that take hold.
Jim Freeze Yeah. As a matter of fact, I understand that Edmentum recently launched your first kind of AI-based virtual advisor, the Edmentum Online Navigator. Could you talk a little bit more about it and what prompted the development and launch of it?
Paul Johansen Yeah. The development and launch of it came right at the beginning of the pandemic. We launched it last spring. We didn’t quite predict that, but it played well into how that worked, because really, when we launched EON, what we were trying to do was provide a virtual advisor to teachers that would allow teachers to move quickly past getting a system set up, understanding what they need to do with the system, and get really deeply into how do they connect with their students in the best ways.
And so, what EON does is, EON is an AI-based chatbot that uses machine learning to understand what are the steps that a teacher needs to get through to be successful to be able to connect with their students. Some of the basics are helping load the students, helping create classes, helping them create their first assignment. Those steps used to take a half hour for a teacher to get through. Now with EON, we can do that in three or four minutes.
And so, when we have more and more teachers trying to get through that as quickly as possible in the current situation that we’re in, that played out really well. And then it goes beyond just that basic setup. Where it starts to get very interesting for teachers is really it becomes then a recommendation engine for teachers for the best ways for them to engage with their students. So they’re going to recommend curriculum based on what their students might need.
It may recommend that, “Hey, it would be best if you engaged with these students in a practice session,” or, “engaging these students in a full-class exercise.” Also giving recommendations about other teachers in your district or other teachers in your state are successfully using this topic or this lesson or this resource to help students. And so, understanding what a teacher is attempting to do based on the interaction and understanding where that teacher’s students are.
And then really what it’s trying to do is provide, as quickly as possible, the right resources for that teacher to get to working with their students. Even when I came into the industry over 10 years ago, there’s always kind of this challenge between EdTech, and is EdTech there to replace the teachers? Certainly, we’ve never felt that way. We very much feel that EdTech is always there to support the teachers and students.
AI plays that same role in terms of being able to support the teachers, spending more direct time with their students, and providing that teacher-to-student connection, which is the best possible thing that can happen for a student’s education. And so, EON is really there at the heart of it to ensure that that teacher has the most time possible during any given teaching day to be able to interact with students.
Jim Freeze Yeah, that’s interesting. You kind of actually touched on my next question, which is talking a little bit about how AI can enhance education for both teachers and students. I’m kind of curious as to how you see this AI assistant growing over time. Does it expand in terms of capabilities and the benefits it can deliver to both students and teachers?
Paul Johansen Yeah, absolutely. As the AI understands better about the situation that’s happening with a teacher and students, really, truly being able to anticipate the needs of those teachers and students before they even know their own needs. Instead of a teacher having to go and work and understand and run through reports, really having the AI being able to anticipate it ahead of their needs, proactively being able to put that in front of it, and understanding what that teacher has done historically, and understanding what that student has done historically that will drive a positive student outcome.
That’s ultimately what we’re going for, is a positive student outcome. Whether that’s proficiency on the state standards or growth, we really want the AI to continue to drive that.
And then a recommender to offer new things. Teachers can get in a groove, and teachers are some of the busiest people on the planet. And so, they may not know to go and utilize a feature within the program that could be really engaging for their students or utilize a different report or a different dashboard that will give them different insights. And so, using the AI as a recommender to put those new things in front of a teacher, that could really help them continue to serve their students in the best way.
Jim Freeze With kind of the rise of the virtual classroom this year and how pervasive that is compared to just even six or seven months ago, have you seen an increase…I assume you’ve seen an increase in usage, but have you also have seen an increase in requests for different kinds of tools, maybe things you hadn’t thought about or things that you were thinking about that you needed to accelerate?
Paul Johansen Yeah. We’ve definitely seen an increase in usage. I think the industry…All of our programs have seen kind of, at minimum, double year-over-year usage, some as high as 20 times year over year. So, I think, as you would expect in this situation we’re in, we’ve seen a lot of usage. Really, the most pronounced change for us is the role of the parent.
We’ve always had tools for parents to be able to engage, but right now, more than ever, that is what has changed so significantly in online learning is the role of the parent. The parent is a teacher. The parent is a parent. And more than ever, that parent wants a deep understanding not only of how their students are doing and visibility into what they’re working on, grades, those kind of things, but the parent needs additional instruction on how they can help be a teacher, how they can…essentially, teacher guides for parents, resources for parents, so that as they see their students struggling or if they’re helping their students continue to move ahead, that they have the resources to do that.
The biggest change for us, and there’s a lot of great things that can happen from very engaged parents and their students’ education, but that’s the biggest change we have seen is just the role of the parent in their students’ education online during the pandemic.
Jim Freeze Yeah, it’s interesting. The fact that the kids aren’t face-to-face in school but they’re home has created just a new dynamic for parents everywhere. So, that’s very insightful. It kind of leads to my last question, which is, it’s been fascinating to hear about all this, but I’m curious as to what Edmentum’s and your vision are for the longer-term role of AI in education.
Paul Johansen Yeah. When we look at educating a student, there’s a concept that’s very popular to talk about in education today called the whole child or the whole student. That’s based on the fact that a student’s education and their success in school is not only based on academics, but it’s based on social and emotional factors as well, the whole child. And so, where we believe we’ll continue to move forward is not only taking into account the academic aspects of what is happening with a student, but also social and emotional aspects.
And so, that gives us a much more well-rounded way of looking at a student and being able to find better ways to serve that student. It’s not the fact that they’re challenged with a math lesson why they’re not doing well today. Maybe it’s the fact that something’s happening at home or something is distracting them on the outside that’s not helping them be successful academically. Better understanding that is going to allow us to better understand how to serve that student.
Additionally, as we look at ways to find engaging curriculum, embedding AI within AR and VR to make it more immersive and more engaging of an experience is also something that we believe has not only great abilities in terms of being able to serve students, but great abilities in terms of being able to kind of break down the equity barrier. You hear a lot about that today-
Jim Freeze Sure do.
Paul Johansen … in education with technology. Being able to provide these immersive experiences, whether it’s seeing art on the wall of a museum using AR or VR, or being able to kind of truly engage in that immersive scenario really breaks that down as well. Using AI to power those type of lessons are also areas that we’re doing a lot of focus and doing a lot of R&D work on now as well.
Jim Freeze That’s fantastic. Paul, I learned a lot, and I’m sure our listeners will really appreciate this episode. Thank you so much for joining. It’s always fascinating to hear about how AI is transforming new sectors, like education, especially in this kind of new remote first world we live in. I think it’s going to be a very popular episode. Thank you for joining us.
Paul Johansen Thank you. I appreciate it.
Jim Freeze On our next episode of The ConversAItion, we’re joined by Jure Leskovec, Chief Scientist at Pinterest and a professor at Stanford University. Jure will discuss how Pinterest leverages AI to provide relevant, personalized content recommendations for hundreds of millions of users.
This episode of The ConversAItion podcast was produced by Interactions, a Boston-area conversational AI company. I’m Jim Freeze, and we’ll see you next time.