Limerick On The Up: The future of learning in UL

Limerick On The Up: The future of learning in UL

Leading the way on the delivery of education in Artificial Intelligence (AI):Dr Pepijn van de Ven and Prof John Nelson, course directors MSc in AI at UL

Technology is having an impact on education, particularly in delivery and the methods of teaching.

While human contact remains the primary focus, in a small number of niche courses, a new method of delivery is proving wildly successful.

Speaking recently about the future of higher-level education, University of Limerick president Dr Des Fitzgerald offered his thinking on the transformation of education that is already taking place.

“So I break it down into two things; it is going to be content – the content is going to be different; and then it’s going to be delivery, it is going to be delivered in a different way,” he explained.

“I think it is going to be more experiential and we do that here at UL, the co-op programme ensures the students experience the workplace and experience working with other people, and develop other skills besides their educational skills,” explained Dr Fitzgerald.

“I think that it will be more problem-based. We have done that on a couple of occasions, a couple of our programmes here, particularly in our medical school and it works well,” he added.

UL has always been a pioneer on innovation and education, but is genuinely leading the way on the delivery of education in Artificial Intelligence (AI).

In September 2018, following a demand from industry and specifically from the IDA that feared a looming skills crisis in AI that could affect Ireland’s ability to both attract foreign direct investment and retain it, a new All-Ireland Masters in AI began at UL.

Funded by ICT Skillnet, the part-time, two year MSc had an initial enrolment of 100 students. Uniquely in an Irish context, it offers a certificate in AI that works as a fast-track introductory course, allowing those without a specific background in the discipline a grounding as they move on to the masters.

Now in its second year, there are surgeons, accountants, designers, PhD students and some educated just to Leaving Certificate standard on the course that was designed with crucial input from industry.

Professor John Nelson of the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering (ECE) at UL spotted the opportunity and enlisted a team from ECE, the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems and the Kemmy Business School to win the contract for the new masters.

This cross-faculty support and emphasis on industry has been central to its success.

“The first thing that was formed was an industry board – industry reps from right across Microsoft, IBM, Google, SMEs – a whole host of about 18 partners, who defined the course and what they thought was interesting,” explains John, the first course director on the programme.

“What was different about this was that it was a dedicated, AI-specific course,” he adds, noting that there was “huge demand” with 400 applications in the first year.

“It was a very successful first year. I am pretty sure that we are the only programme that has developed from scratch. And the industry board, to a large extent, decided what we were going to teach,” adds Pepijn van de Ven, a senior lecturer in the ECE department, who took over from John as course director in 2019.

The key aspect was the decision to offer the course fully online. Using a forum and moderator system successfully developed with help from academics at the Kemmy Business School, the students must engage with their peers in order to learn. The results have been staggering.

“We flipped the idea of a face to face delivery, as we are used to doing it, with lectures, tutorials and labs, to this idea of online delivery, which is completely different,” explains Pepijn, whose own research interests are in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“You really put the student in the driving seat and they determine, to a large extent, where they are going,” he adds.

The students work on problem-solving – so-called ‘E-tivities’ – and must discuss the tasks with their peers. They are marked on their engagement as well as the solution and are graded on feedback. They meet directly as a group once or twice a semester – but other than that, work online.

“There is massive learning in that, because your peers can give you a different insight and often understand what you don’t,” explains Pepijn.

The course is now one of Skillnet’s most successful and UL has separately approved a full-time masters that will start in September, which will be different in its delivery. Graduates will end up working in the automotive industry, on medical, finance and general computing applications, as well as in natural language processing fields – the Alexas of the future.

The part-time programme, intended for those in employment, offers specific evidence of the “future of learning”, as Pepijn describes it.

“I say we are in the Wild West – it is very interesting, because we are prospecting, we are looking for gold here,” he explains.

“I think it is the future of learning – this method of delivery specifically. We should get out of this whole idea that we are teaching, we become facilitators of learning and you actually see that you learn an awful lot yourself along the way.

“We do everything online these days, but not learning, not actually collaborating and that is what this system of forums and moderators allows us to do,” he adds.

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