Editor’s note: This story on how artificial intelligence is about to change the educational experience at Penn State is the final installment in a four-part series running Sunday through Wednesday.
The grown-ups are playing with pipe cleaners. Tape and construction paper lay askew, strewn pell-mell around the open co-working space. Hurriedly, the five teams whip them together into a makeshift prototype. One group has taken a wooden box and turned it into a diorama.
“It was a chair,” the group’s leader says, smiling. “We were sitting on it.”
His name is David Kuskowski, the director of recruitment for undergraduate admissions at Penn State, he looks a bit like Steve Jobs with his black turtleneck sweater and he is trying to think as differently as his doppelganger. He isn’t a high school student anymore, but he and his group are also trying to think like one.
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They’ve been tasked with designing a solution to a common problem for prospective college students: How do I know if this is the right school for me?
“We trying to figure out a way to let students share information about themselves — their fears, their needs, their wants, their goals — and we can use the Watson interface to help those students connect with other prospective students in meaningful ways.”
At a session on IBM’s Watson API, Kuskowski and about 25 others are hammering out similar solutions as part of a design-thinking workshop held in the New Leaf Initiative space. After coming up with their solutions and presenting them at large, the teams split up again and Skype with World Campus students, asking them about the validity of their pitches.
With more than 130,000 applications for the 2016-2017 academic year, the highest in the school’s history, Kuskowski’s is a formidable problem.
“A human being couldn’t do it,” he said. “If a family comes in and starts talking to me about what their student wants to do, I can start to draw connections. But I can’t meet with 50,000 people and we can’t pay enough people to meet with 50,000 people and I might not do it perfectly. So maybe there’s a way for Watson to do that better.”
A few dozen safety scissors away, Simon Hooper, a professor of design learning and technology, pumps his team up with a round of double high-fives. They’ve spent the morning figuring out how to connect students to clubs and activities once they arrive on campus.
They’ve just finished their Skype session with their student and they’re elated with the feedback.
“He was super engaged,” said one of Hooper’s teammates. “He was the type of student you want in your class.”
“As somebody who teaches on World Campus, did I ever learn a lot,” Hooper said. “Because we don’t do that sort of thing; we don’t interview our World Campus students.”
Rose Cameron, the direction of innovation for Penn State Outreach and Online Education and the workshop’s organizer, agrees. “We need to do this more,” she said.
James Delattre, the director of entrepreneurship and commercialization for Penn State, likened the university’s growth to a young company’s: exponential, but with a fair number of challenges. He credited university President Eric Barron, Neil Sharkey, vice president for research, and the multidisciplinary team behind Invent Penn State for the initial success.
Workshops like these prove Delattre’s point: The university is still in startup mode in many ways. But once they can bring these products to market, he and his contemporaries say, the consumers — the students — will experience education much like they experience their everyday lives: inside the highly personalized sphere of social media.
“With Netflix or Amazon, they tailor content to what they think you’ll like based on what you watch,” said Adam Macaluso, a graduate student in the university’s college of education and Hooper’s teammate. “So this mirrors that, but with a social or RSS feed. Just like in Facebook, you can search for things and over time the AI will pick up your habits quicker.”
But as the university and the rest of the world hurtle toward a scrollable future, connecting has never been both easier and harder. Social media use has been linked to higher rates of depression among young adults, but also, in some cases, greater empathy among users. The inverse is also true.
Sharkey, for instance, said he’s seen an increase in mental health issues among the student population. According to Inside Higher Ed, the demand for counseling services at the university has increased by 30 percent over the past five years.
In 2015, the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services served more than 3,600 students accounting for more than 30,000 clinical service sessions per year.
“These technologies create visionary opportunities while at the same time providing new mechanisms for evil,” Sharkey said. “A great example of that, and something some of our researchers are studying, is social media. The growth of social media over the past 10 years is just astounding. There’s some very real data now that says paying too much attention to social media is probably bad for your mental health because it’s warping your view of the world.
“We’ve got to face those consequences,” he continued. “We’ve see a huge rise in mental health issues in our students, our student population and the country in general.”
And with uber-tailored content, things get lost in translation. By choice, users can put more degrees of separation between them and different perspectives. Which seems counterintuitive to the idea of higher education, Sharkey said.
Yet about one-quarter of the world logs into Facebook, according to the company. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found two-thirds of the world uses internet and more than 40 percent own a smartphone. In the U.S., nearly three-fourths of adults own one.
Wu is among them. He checks his before closing up.
The room follows suit. Heads bow and hands fold around screens as if in prayer.
For a moment, there’s silence.
“You could see how it could go over the edge and how thin the edge is,” Cameron said. “Because AI can be incredibly powerful or just pure dead creepy, and we’ve got to find that fine edge where it’s useful but not dystopian.”
Back in New Leaf, Cameron assigns the groups homework as they pack up. She tells them to watch “Black Mirror,” a U.K. show about a world like ours, yet not far removed.
Hooper recites the show’s name to himself out loud, trying to put it to memory. He leaves his phone in his pocket.
For Sharkey, the choice still rests with us, he says. In finding answers in an increasingly automated world, the search begins before you fish out your phone and open up Google.
“We have maintained that quality of life is dependent on the humanities,” he said. “If you’re going to be a well-rounded individual and appreciate what we are as beings in the world and how we fit in the world, you can’t do that without having that liberal arts education.”
Because while machines continue to imitate life, he says, life will continue to imitate art.
“You’d find that a lot of scientists also play music or write fiction or they have some artistic outlet,” he said. “My outlet is playing music, is playing guitar. And it doesn’t come as a big surprise because research is really a creative process.
“It’s part of being human.”