Image: Intelligent CIO

I’m struggling to understand how artificial intelligence is going to impact on post-secondary education, and in particular on online learning, at least over the next five to ten years. I hope you will join me as I continue to explore this topic over several blog posts. My strategy here is to look at several recent specific developments where AI is either being used or proposed, then follow this with one or two posts where I set out my conclusions.

I am going to start first with what’s happening at Athabasca University (AU), Canada’s largest fully online university. This could be the most significant development in recent years in Canadian online learning.

Modernizing Athabasca University’s IT infrastructure

Athabasca University (2018) Athabasca University first Canadian post-secondary institution to officially collaborate with Amazon Web Services Athabasca AB: Athabasca University Presidents’ Office, October 30

Shekar, S. (2018) Athabasca University immerses itself in 5 year digital transformation plan, uses Amazon Web Services IT World Canada, October 30

Athabasca University (2018) RISE: Athabasca University’s Digital Transformation Athabasca AB: Athabasca University, April

It seems that AU, with the help of a one-time $4.9 million grant from the Alberta provincial government, is at last going to fix the problems with its IT infrastructure identified as long ago as 2010 by the province’s auditor-general. Basically, it will move its systems to the cloud, by contracting (or partnering?) with Amazon Web Services (AWS), which provides on-demand cloud computing platforms on a paid subscription basis. 

However, the announcement suggests much more than a simple modernization of standard IT services, such as student administration systems, HR services, etc. The announcement states that 

the two organizations will also be designing, implementing and managing cloud education programs, artificial intelligence and machine learning initiatives, and research-based applications for the education sector.

The announcement goes on to state that:

One area of focus is creating ‘learning that learns from itself’ by adding machine learning and artificial intelligence to all interactions—giving AU insights on how to improve the user experience.

It should be noted that this is just one element (although a critical one) of the universities new digital transformation strategy.

Jennifer Schaeffer, AU’s CIO, commented that:

by moving to cloud computing, centralizing key data sets about learning and interactions and running machine learning scripts across that data will allow the university to tailor learning strategies for students.

Schaeffer (Shekar, 2018) said AU has seven areas of focus in its digital transformation plan:

  • moving the current learning system to the AWS cloud;
  • reinventing and implementing robust security;
  • augmenting, deconstructing and reconstructing 850 online courses using AWS Sumarian to integrate virtual reality and augmented reality, creating hands-on learning experiences;
  • using AWS machine learning and AI to the learner’s interaction;
  • creating R&D by using AWS;
  • creating personalized learning pathways for students aged 14 to 99 and above;
  • the learning platform [becomes] a part of the student for the rest of their lives by creating an AU augmented intelligence learning partner.

And that’s all I can tell you so far about the plan at AU.


First, it’s clear that AU now has at least a clear vision of where it is going with its IT infrastructure and to a lesser extent its teaching and learning. This in itself is tremendous progress given AU’s history over the last 10 years.

Moving its IT services to the cloud and partnering with a commercial organization such as Amazon Web Services makes a lot of sense for an organization such as AU. Providing the capacity for enhanced security, multimedia content, and personalized learning pathways are all good things.

But I am scratching my head a little over the promises regarding AI and its impact on teaching and learning. It’s not so much the ‘what’ or even the ‘why’, but the ‘how’ that bothers me.

How much is this just a wish list from the CIO? How much input to this has there been from the academic and educational side? In particular, apart from the obvious benefits of being able to aggregate and analyse data more easily from across the system, how is AI going to change the way that AU teaches? In particular, how well does it fit with the goals of education at AU, such as helping develop knowledge and skills in a particular subject area? What are AU’s future teaching models going to look like, given the new IT infrastructure? I saw nothing in RISE, the digital transformation strategy, that addressed these questions.

But then I haven’t been part of the internal discussions at AU. Maybe it’s all in another internal document or under development through academic working committees. Certainly a distance teaching university’s academic goals and strategies should be influenced by what’s possible through a modernized IT system. But am I alone in thinking that IT strategy should be driven by academic goals, not the other way round? In the meantime, I look forward with interest to see how the teaching is going to change at AU, and in particular what roles AI will actually play in that teaching.

However, from a purely personal perspective I am still no wiser about the potential or risks of AI in education. I’ll just have to wait and see.

Next up

Learning House’s report on AI in Higher Education.



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