Is AI the future of test prep?

This article is part of beginninga series about companies harnessing new science and technology to solve challenges in their industries.

Ever since Socrates taught Plato and Plato taught Aristotle, mankind has known that the best education comes one-on-one from a skilled educator. But that’s expensive, labor-intensive, and difficult to scale. The result is the imperfect classroom instruction we live with today: large classes, overworked and overburdened teachers, a lack of resources. Educators focus the little time they have for personal attention on either the best and brightest or the bottom of the class. The broad middle is often left to its own devices.

Educators may have a new tool, AI, to address these issues. Innovative forms of technology, based on computer code that mimics the networks of neurons in the human brain, can uncover patterns in student performance and help teachers adjust their strategies accordingly. “AI Tutors” — software systems that students interact with online — promise to give each student individualized attention and potentially reshape education as we know it.

One of the few companies leading this transformation is Riiiid (pronounced “rid”), a startup founded in Korea by YJ Jang, a graduate of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley . Riiiid already has a strong presence in the Asian market for test preparation apps for the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), which measures English proficiency for business. Now Riiiid is about to enter the SAT and ACT prep market in the United States.

“Education is a complex area that is closely related to cognition, motivation, peer interaction, etc.,” Jang wrote in an email. “We draw insights from learning science, cognitive biology, data science and other related research areas for an iterative experimentation process that is challenging and time-consuming – that’s why there are few vendors on the market.”

The first computer instructional systems appeared in the 1960s and presented material in short segments, asking students questions and providing instant feedback on answers. Since these systems were expensive and computers were far from ubiquitous, research institutes in particular benefited.

In the 1970s and 1980s, systems using rule-based artificial intelligence and cognitive theory began. These approaches guide students through each step of a problem and provide clues from expert knowledge bases. But rules-based systems failed because they didn’t scale—and extensive expertise was expensive and tedious to code.

Mr. Jang was evaluating such systems at Berkeley when a friend, Kangwook Lee, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, introduced him to deep learning, a much more powerful form of AI that uses algorithms to learn by themselves, scooping data from mountains of data. Mr. Jang realized that deep learning could be applied to the classroom, with systems that learn content and student behavior over time.

He returned to Korea and founded Riiiid in 2014, where he worked with a team of data scientists to develop a suite of AI algorithms that track student performance, predict outcomes, and anticipate when students lose interest and short about to cancel. The company has contributed to this work at some of the world’s leading machine learning conferences.

In order to validate its technology and collect the data needed to refine its algorithms, Riiiid launched a TOEIC test prep app called Santa (Santa Claus collects data on children all over the world, of course). It quickly became one of the top-selling educational apps in Japan and Korea.

Through the app, Riiiid collected data on student interactions and built what is now one of the world’s largest public education datasets called EdNet. But Riiiid is struggling to gather enough data to generalize its AI system to the broader realm of education.

“It is difficult to collect AI-trainable, multi-modal data in different learning environments,” Mr. Jan wrote.

Currently, the company focuses on the $300 billion test prep market where data is easier to collect and has partnered with education companies in different parts of the world to develop test prep apps. Earlier this year, Riiiid partnered with Casa Grande to launch an app called OE Saber to help students in Colombia prepare for the entrance exam for the country’s Saber 11 college.

Riiiid’s success attracted a $175 million investment from venture capital giant SoftBank’s Vision Fund II, bringing the company’s funding to approximately $250 million.

Riiiid is now introducing an AI-supported preparation platform for the SAT and ACT university entrance exams. The R.test product, to be released in January (price to be announced), predicts standardized exam results in a quarter of the time it takes to run a full mock test. By answering 30 questions, students receive an analysis of their weaknesses and pointers for improvement, including an AI-curated selection of relevant practice questions. Riiiid says the intent is for students to practice using the app and take the real exam with some confidence in their final results.

“I really liked this because we can just use it at home instead of hiring a tutor,” said Esther Yi, a Georgia mom who tried an early version of the platform. She found the R.test analysis particularly meaningful. “My 10th grade will definitely benefit from this,” she said.

Oscar Torres, a Chicago high school math teacher who tried Riiiid’s system, said he liked R.test because it assesses students’ knowledge in real time without depending on previous test results. “As AI develops, I see it becoming a better and stronger resource for us,” he said. “As teachers, we need to fix bugs in real time, and AI can help us tremendously.”

But the company’s goal remains broader than test prep. Mr. According to Jang, R.test is part of an effort to collect data and prove the effectiveness of its algorithms in other areas. Riiiid researchers continue to develop novel architectures and more powerful AI models that can track student behavior, track student knowledge, and select the best content to learn at any given time.

“Our algorithms can predict student test scores with amazing accuracy, a moving number that serves as a kind of carrot,” he said. “As more students follow the algorithmic recommendations, their predicted score will increase.”

Mr. Jang believes that soon, lessons will no longer be based on guesswork or intuition, but on data. And that might be the company’s biggest challenge: Collecting that data, he added, is the bottleneck, as privacy concerns make data collection in schools a complicated subject. (Riiid says its apps don’t collect any personally identifiable information from users.)

To address these concerns, Riiiid helped found the EdSAFE AI Alliance, a global, cross-industry alliance of companies, nonprofits, and educational technology associations to develop benchmarks and standards to ensure the safe and responsible use of AI in education .

“The dream,” Mr. Jang said, “is to integrate these algorithms into a comprehensive system that can teach any subject to anyone, anywhere.”

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