Priya Lakhani, a successful entrepreneur who was giving something back to the developing world, has found a cause much closer to home.
The trained barrister and foodstuffs magnate from London has taken up the cause of artificial intelligence in education, hoping that innovation can help British schools that are falling behind their international counterparts.
For more than a decade, Ms Lakhani used a portion of the profits from her first business, a successful brand of Indian cooking sauces, Masala Masala, to fund schools, as well as vaccinations and hot meals, in India.
But, struck by the underachievement rates in schools in the UK, she added a focus on her home country.
"I just thought, why am I funding schools in Commonwealth countries that are all replicated on the British model, if the British model just doesn't work?" she told The National.
In 2009, the year she first looked into the UK situation, a study conducted by Sheffield University found that a fifth of teenagers in England did not have maths and literacy skills good enough to be able to deal with everyday life challenges.
Three years later, results of the 2012 Pisa tests, run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, placed the UK in the bottom two thirds of the international rankings table for literacy and numeracy, and sparked debate about the needs of the national education system.
In the 12 years since, more money and policies have not made much of a dent in the status quo. Only 65 per cent of primary school pupils in the UK in 2019 achieved the government's "expected standard" in reading, writing and maths.
Ask any parent, teacher or child and they are likely to support these statistics with personal accounts of a stifling, cumbersome and overloaded system that often fails children.
AI can alleviate administrative burden in education
A leading UK educationalist, Sir Anthony Seldon, has written that teachers in the country are overwhelmed by the administrative demands of classrooms that are too big.
It is an "inherently flawed" model that, he argues, artificial intelligence can help upend. "There is no more important issue facing education, or humanity at large, than the fast approaching revolution of AI," he writes in his latest book, The Fourth Education Revolution.
Ms Lakhani is a founder of Century Tech, an AI education technology company developed by a team of teachers, neuroscientists and technologists.
It offers a diagnostics and learning tool that promises to help teach students while reducing teachers' workloads.
The AI-powered system constantly assimilates and adapts to provide personalised learning experiences to every student. “It learns how your brain learns,” Ms Lakhani said.
Founded in 2013, the platform has been developed by teachers, engineers, data scientists, neuroscientists and psychologists.
Feeling strongly that she needed to "solve the problem", Ms Lakhani visited schools in England and found the same problems that Mr Seldon discusses in his book.
The one-size-fits-all delivery of education and the time spent by teachers marking, instead of teaching, were failing the system.
“You're asking every teacher to be a data analyst because they've got to figure out very quickly which student is where, when you make an intervention. If they didn't do that, in an instant, you go through the curriculum, the gaps widen,” Ms Lakhani said.
Teaching methods, she said, evolved from a "blackboard to an interactive whiteboard" without really taking advantage of what technology had to offer.
"There was more tech on my phone than in the schools. How is this possible? Has anyone actually looked at this?" Ms Lakhani said.
After a crash-course in AI and data-based neuroscience, she conceived the idea of building a machine that could host any curriculum in any language, and would track students’ mouse movements to gain an understanding, create predictive patterns and then develop a recommended programme of learning.
"Then we could create an artificially intelligent machine that learns by itself and gets smarter every second and can personalise it, thereby removing the one size fits all," she told The National.
Century Tech has one million students using its platform in 40 countries. From Eton in England to the Jumeirah English Speaking School in Dubai and state schools in Lebanon teaching Syrian refugees, a wide range of schools have adopted Century Tech.
It is not a platform only for fee-paying private schools. Ms Lakhani said that about 70 per cent of the schools signed up in the UK were state schools.
Middle East quick to adopt educational AI
She said that many of Century Tech’s fastest adopters were in the Middle East, where eight countries use the platform.
“If you want to get some traction, and you want to work with some of the brightest and the best and to innovate with them, then actually the Middle East is a perfect place to be,” said Ms Lakhani, whose clients include MiSK and DAS in Saudi Arabia.
As well as growing her business, quicker and bigger sign-ups also help the platform, and its users, to improve.
“Because entrepreneurs that are building innovative products and services want to iterate, they want to be agile, they want to get your feedback, they want to act on it. But if it takes so long to adopt something, then you lose that agility,” Ms Lakhani, who was awarded an OBE in 2014, said.
An analysis in conjunction with University College London of students using Century Tech found that, on average, their understanding of a topic increased by 30 per cent between their first and second attempts on the platform. Teachers reported back to Ms Lakhani's team a saving of six to seven hours a week normally spent on administration.
At a cost of 50 to 60 pence per month (70 to 84 US cents) per student, the scalability and wide-reach of the platform looks promising. With worldwide school closures for much of the past year and the shock move to digital distant learning, a glaring spotlight is now shining on the future of education.
More than 600,000 children globally were not achieving the minimum proficiency levels in reading and maths before Covid-19, but with 1.6 billion children out of school at the peak of the pandemic, this number is set to increase.
Adopting AI in education is progressively seen as the way to close the gaps and to boost employment-ready skills.
Last month, Jisc, the UK’s not-for-profit organisation providing digital services and solutions in education, launched a new National Centre for Artificial Intelligence in Tertiary Education.
The initiative – which has been welcomed by global technology companies including Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft – aims to deliver AI solutions to 60 colleges and 30 universities within five years.
As well as providing examples of AI in education, including students' use of chatbots and digital assistants, a report published by the centre pointed to the $3.67bn invested in AI Edtech start-ups in 2019 as a strong economic argument for adoption.
"AI education solutions are attracting this investment because they offer considerable benefits to learners, teachers, and education institutions," the report said.
Ms Lakhani said her company raised £15 million ($21.19m) in funding, the last round of which she said was over-subscribed.
Policymakers have been heralding the increasing reach of AI into everyday life.
In March this year, the digital secretary, Oliver Dowden, announced the government's intention to formulate a national AI strategy. In doing so, Mr Dowden said, recommendations would be considered from industry, academia and civil society alongside those made by the AI Council in its AI Roadmap published in January.
Ms Lakhani is a member of the AI Council, an independent expert government advisory committee, and was recently appointed as a non-executive board member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport department.
She thinks that the pandemic will accelerate AI’s adoption in education. “You've got schools that may not have considered using the technology and were forced to because of the pandemic,” Ms Lakhani said.
Having co-founded the Institute for Ethical AI in Education with Mr Seldon and Prof Rose Luckin, she knows full well the need to put a moral compass on the direction of AI in education.
Ms Lakhani relates a recent encounter with a schoolgirl as a source of inspiration.
During an observation session of students in England using the Century Tech platform, one schoolgirl told her that she used to struggle with mathematics and had always been too afraid to raise her hand in class.
Century Tech, she told Ms Lakhani, helped her to love maths again and to learn better. It also alerted the teacher when she needed assistance, making the girl’s shyness no longer a hindrance.
“I just think that's worth £15 million," Ms Lakhani said. "That girl now feels confident in maths. She feels she can do it. She feels like she gets the help that she needs.”