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One of the oldest online learning companies in the US is using automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to help educators and school districts keep teaching during the coronavirus epidemic. Edmentum has been building online learning programs since the 1960 when the company got its start at the University of Illinois.

The company creates online learning classes and management platforms for K-12 schools and works with 8,000 districts in the US and the UK. Paul Johansen, Edmentum’s CTO, said that most schools are preparing for a hybrid model of education for the upcoming school year, due to COVID-19.

“Schools need to be able to flip the switch between in the building or out because they may move from in-school to out for unknown periods of time,” Johansen said.

Johansen said that Edmentum has seen two general approaches to managing online education for K-12 students. Some school districts are leveraging online platforms such as Google Classroom to keep teaching students during work-at-home orders due to the coronavirus. Others are taking a more comprehensive approach to online learning by using digital tools for curriculum planning and assessments.

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Johansen added that there’s no one specific approach, and that schools are creating instruction plans that fit their own needs and resources. Most school districts in the US also have to consider access to an internet connection as many students in rural areas do not have connectivity at home.

“Some districts are moving back to paper-based work or non-tech dependent solutions to ensure equity,” he said.

Keeping up with changing state standards across the US

Subject matter experts at Edmentum track changing standards for K-12 education at the state level in the US. The Common Core was used by many states for a few years, but it has fallen out of favor recently. Edmentum relies on automation to customize online curriculums to meet the requirements in each state.

“There are differences across the states, but there’s a common skills framework,” Johansen said. “That’s where we build in as much automation into the process as we can.”

For example, skip counting is part of the math standard in many states, but the Indiana standard may expect elementary students to skip count by fives, while the Tennessee standard specifies skip counting by tens.

“An author on our staff creates a generic math question, and then an automation algorithm creates the variations on that question,” he said.

Edmentum’s Study Island product tracks these state-by-state standards and then creates practice problems, quizzes, and tests that can be customized for each student.

Digital curriculum planning can help teachers build and track a personalized learning plan for each student. Johansen said that test scores from standardized assessments are used to customize math lessons for kids who are working at, above, or below grade-level expectations.

“In one class, a teacher may have 10 students on track, 10 ahead, and 10 one or two grade levels behind on math skills,” he said. “We can use adaptive tech to help one student push ahead and go back to essentials with another student.”

Teachers can use these customized plans to keep the whole class on track to meet state expectations for students at that grade level.

Encouraging data standards

The key to using test scores to guide instructional plans and data sharing across systems has been a challenge until recently. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) governs student data and how it can be shared. The Ed-Fi Alliance is one of several advocacy groups that is working on common standards to make it easier to share testing data across schools and information systems.

Johansen said that over the last two years, edtech companies and education advocates have been focused on using artificial intelligence to analyze student data. has a list of voluntary guidelines that cover how to use this data. The Future of Privacy Forum and The Software & Information Industry Association are working on an update to the pledge, that was first developed in 2014.

Onboarding help via a virtual assistant

To help teachers learn now to onboard students and find state standards for various subjects, Edmentum is developing an artificial intelligence engine to power a virtual assistant as part of the online curriculum platform.

“Instead of a teacher having to learn the product, he or she can have a conversational chat with a virtual advisor,” Johansen said. “We have reduced the general onboarding flow from 27 minutes to just over four minutes.”