AI and assessment: The CEO perspective
AI will change digital assessment in some fundamental ways. In this interview with Learnosity co-founder and CEO, Gavin Cooney, he explains:
- How AI will dramatically reduce workloads while speeding up test creation
- The main opportunities and challenges the learning industry faces with AI
- The importance of staying adaptable and keeping the big-picture view in mind
Q. We know tech evolves rapidly. Just over a hundred years ago, most homes didn’t have electricity. Since then we’ve had things like TV & radio, personal computers, the Internet, smartphones—all of which helped launch major societal changes. Do you think AI will have a similar impact, or is it somehow different?
GC: As a philosopher [Heraclitus] once said, “The only thing that is constant is change”.
And it’s happening more rapidly now than ever. To use the examples you’ve already given, electricity changed the world but wasn’t widely available to people for 50 years or so. It took a few decades before computers were everywhere. It took less time again to get smartphones into people’s hands. The adoption curve with AI is something else entirely, and it’s already blowing everything else out of the water. There are three primary conditions driving this: 1) consumer comfort, 2) network effects, and 3) exponential tech advancements (also known as Moore’s law).
In short, each new tech advance paves the way for others. In my opinion, whole new economies of innovation will emerge from AI—and they’ll arise more quickly than at any time previously.
Q. The rapid adoption is clear for all to see. Even though it feels like the concept of AI has been around forever in popular culture, it seemed to become a reality almost overnight. Can you describe your first encounter with it? What was your a-ha moment regarding its potential?
GC: Like most people, I knew that AI was coming down the tracks, but as the CEO of a tech company, I guess you could call me an early adopter.
My first time using generative AI, I remember I prompted it to write a scene from Friends, only set in 20 years’ time. It churned that out easily. So I went more abstract and gave a prompt to write a scene from Friends crossed with Breaking Bad. And it gave me a detailed script with stage directions, dialogue, the lot. Walt and Jessie were talking and Joey was there in the background doing Joey stuff. Now maybe the crossover wasn’t perfect, but it was still a OMG moment for me. This kind of instant imagining that could bridge two totally disparate things that I could then control, change, improve. I knew right away it would be a game-changer across all industries—and definitely for education.
Q. On that point, how does AI fit support Learnosity’s mission as a company?
GC: To restate it, our mission as a company is to advance education and learning, worldwide, with best-in-class technology.
That’s the lens we put on all our work. AI is no different in that respect. Trends come and go so we always need to take a big-picture view—does this feature or product add real value for our users and for their users in the long term? Does it make their lives easier? We need to ask those kinds of questions.
Back in April I attended the ASU+GSV conference in San Diego. There was a livestream interview with Sam Altman, the Founder and CEO of OpenAI. On a side note: He didn’t make it to the conference so actually dialled in from his car, which was pretty weird. Still, he spoke about how better tools make us more ambitious. I agree with that point. AI raises the bar in allowing us to do a lot of new, transformative things. This is most obvious with generative AI, which has mass market appeal because its use isn’t restricted to data scientists or engineers. It has massive implications for everyone in education—from product owners and publishers to teachers and learners.
But to go back to how AI fits into our mission—we’re an API company. That means we can abstract complexity into an API. That’s what we’re doing with AI. That’s what Open AI and other companies are doing with AI. So while companies in the “before times” had to do everything themselves, now AI and all its potential is just ready and waiting for them.
Just think about training an AI to do voice-based search. It’d take endless resources to do well. But now it’s easy to access thanks to the voice APIs developed by the likes of Google or Apple. Our ambition is to make AI an easily accessible tool within assessment.
The game now is multiple companies building on top of these AI APIs. The AI piece is ‘solved’, and it’s the job of entrepreneurs to build applications on top of this—essentially workflows on top of an API. Our ambition is to make AI an easily accessible tool within assessment.