At the start of this year, as the world was just beginning to grasp the power of artificial intelligence that has been growing in the background for years, governments across Australia did what they always do when confronted with something they don’t really understand: they banned it.
Specifically, students were banned from using AI chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT in public schools. New South Wales led the charge in January, quickly followed by Queensland, following alarmist accusations of cheating, forgery, and an end to education as we know it.
Last month, education ministers reversed their stance after it became apparent that a ban on AI was not only illogical but actually disadvantaging public school students — private schools had no such rules to follow and were, in fact, actively encouraging their kids to become familiar with the technology.
From next year, the policy of ‘if you can’t beat them…’ will be adopted, with the use of AI to be taught in all public schools across the country. The move swings the door wide open for collaboration with tech and education firms as teachers and students scramble for understanding and assistance in this technological wild west.
Already, there are dozens of AI companies in the education space, offering various methods for boosting learning aided by AI. Primarily, these seem to focus on teaching students about AI or utilising the powers of ChaGPT to deepen understanding.
Sydney-based education startup Zookal is going one step further. In a world-first, they launched an AI tool that can tutor students independently last month.
Zookal has developed what Co-Founder Ahmed Haider told The Latch is an AI “content generation engine” able to independently create bespoke practice questions to test students before big exams. Using the programme, students can then get immediate feedback and advice as to where they might need to improve, much like a human personal tutor might give.
“We started with the student’s problems and built from the ground up, understanding what the challenges are for students in terms of being able to use AI technology, and how we solve those problems,” Haider said.
“That’s how Zookal Genius came about”.
If the AI maximalists are to be believed, the technology is set to unleash earthquakes across virtually every sector of society. Billionaire Elon Musk, speaking to the British Prime Minister at a recent AI Safety Summit, said that AI is “the most disruptive force in history” and that “There will come a point where no job is needed.” Education is, of course, no exception.
“This very much feels like the onset of the internet, personal computing, or mobile technology,” Haider said. “People still think this technology is probably 18 to 24 months away and, in technology terms, that’s lightyears away. The fact that we’re doing it here and now is very exciting.”
Locally Made Exam Assitance
Born out of a desire to support students in their final exams, the company was founded by University of Technology Sydney graduates who have been in the education game for over a decade. Their approach locally harnesses multiple large language model algorithms and blends symbolic AI principles — rules-based logical reasoning — with generative AI content creation.
The result is a tool that they say is 20-25% more accurate than ChatGPT in answering conceptual mathematics problems — more than sufficient power for passing the HSC which it has been tailored to help students tackle.
“In final examinations, the limitation has always been not getting instantaneous, useful feedback,” Haider said.
“If you’re using something like a chatbot, which is what a lot of companies are doing, it’s not syllabus alliant. We’ve had teachers, educators, HSC markers from some of the top schools helping us make sure that it stays within academic integrity guidelines while bringing in the syllabus as well. So you just get a much more relevant response”.
AI Could Provide Cheap, Tailored Education for All
In the education world, access to high-quality teaching is crucial. It’s been shown that students who are able to access personal tutors often do far better academically than those who don’t. This of course has a knock on affect to economic attainment later in life.
Personal tuition though is something that has been typically difficult to access across the socioeconomic divide and further entrenches generational inequalities. Private tutors in Australia typically charge between $15 and $200 an hour. Haider sees his company’s tech, available for just $10 a month, as a tool to level the playing field.
“Students that have access to resources might be able to get the best private tutor, going by the latest books,” he said.
“That leaves a whole subset of students completely unable to access those resources because they don’t have the capital to do it. [Zookal Genius] helps offset that and equalise access to education.”
Of course, levelling the playing field on one end also comes with consequences. There are thought to be around 70,000 private tutors working in Australia, with one in seven pupils using one at some point in their education. Zookal Genius has just crossed the 5,000 user mark after four weeks, meaning it could soon start putting some of them out of work. Haider is somewhat cavalier about the impact his company could have on them.
“Well, this the first time where white collar jobs have been impacted. Most technological change has traditionally always impacted blue-collar jobs,” he said.
“The way that I view it is that you will most certainly have an impact across the tutoring industry. There will be job losses, without a doubt, but there will also be significant opportunities.”
He envisions that tutors who embrace the tech will be able to use AI more effectively deliver lessons, shifting their teaching from one-on-one to one-on, say, 30. He also notes that, far from being educated entirely by robots, students will always need and benefit from speaking human assistance on hand, which his platform offers.
Taking on the Education Giants
Zookal’s competition is fierce but far and away the largest player in this space is a chatbot tool called Khanmigo. It was developed by Khan Academy, a non-profit education behemoth in the United States, and is currently being trialled in schools in the US.
The company is backed, to the tune of US $10 million, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates, speaking at a recent educational tech conference, noted that AI will soon be “as good a tutor as any human ever could.”
“I think this is the first time ever where a small company from Australia can take on multibillion-dollar educational players that have existed for a long time,” Haider said.
“Obviously, the networking resources and access to capital in Silicon Valley is tremendous and is always very useful but, one of the things that we’re seeing is that, with the advent of this type of technology, it’s not necessarily going to be the case that location matters as much.”
Haider takes the line that many technologists do that, whether we like it or not, AI is coming, and fast, therefore it’s better to embrace it than be steamrolled over by it. Governments across the world seem to be buying this argument, with the first tentative steps towards regulation proving to be very light-touch indeed for fear of stamping out potential. For them, and for the rest of us, it’s very much a wait-and-hope kind of game.
“I think it’s going to be similar to the computer, you know,” Haider said.
“We’re just going to shift from using a typewriter to a personal computer, so you might get three or four times more efficiency out of your work time.”
It’s a very grounded assessment in a space typically bursting with hype. Rather than focus on what the future may or may not look like, Haider notes that he’s simply trying to take things one step at a time.
“As long as we keep students at the forefront, and the challenges that they face that we can solve for them, then we definitely see a lot of exciting things around the corner. I think giving people access to education is probably one of the best things we can do. You will, hopefully, make the world a better place over the next few generations.”