MCAST takes AI education challenge head on 

Rebecca Anastasi - 8th December 2019 

‘We’ve launched a process and this document delineates a pattern in a stream of actions to clarify a sense of direction.’

Over the last few years, developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) – and the concomitant use of machine learning and Big Data – have pushed policy-makers to prioritise programmes which harness the technology’s transformative power. Indeed, in a Science for Policy report, issued by the European Commission last year, AI was quoted as being “the next electricity”, with the publication stressing that reinvention is key for societies and economies to adapt to the industrial and cultural change such technology will precipitate.

In parallel, here in Malta, in March of this year, Government published a consultation document on the island’s national AI strategy, outlining its vision to propel the jurisdiction to the forefront in the sector, thus pushing the nation to adapt to the “fourth industrial revolution”. And, to achieve this, one of its core objectives – as outlined in the policy – is to “equip, reskill and upskill workers in every sector of society.”

The Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology’s (MCAST) Applied Research and Innovation Centre (ARIC), established earlier this year, has taken the challenge head-on, recently launching a consultative document outlining the AI strategy for the college, aligned to the entity’s 2019-2021 overall strategic plan.

Alex rizzo

Alex Rizzo, Deputy Principal of Research and Innovation,
Applied Research and Innovation Centre, MCAST

“We’ve launched a process and this document delineates a pattern in a stream of actions to clarify a sense of direction,” says Dr Alex Rizzo, Deputy Principal of Research and Innovation, before going on to describe the Centre’s role as an “umbrella” across all of the college’s six institutes. “It’s definitely a top-down and bottom-up approach: we provide a sense of direction, but the Centre is fed by feedback from the institutes,” he explains.

Indeed, Dr Rizzo, together with his team, drafted the “roadmap” in conjunction with input from the IT and engineering institutes, as well as the college’s other outfits. The result is a comprehensive framework – flexible enough to adapt to the vagaries of a changing landscape – aiming to use the technology to better prepare MCAST students for industries engaged with AI and to ensure lecturers are “more competent in understanding and applying AI in teaching, research and industry solutions.”

Moreover, the game-changer, according to Dr Rizzo, is the strategy’s goal to assist and manage students throughout their learning experience with the support of AI. “Up until now, education has been stuck in time and we’ve tended to teach students in a batch processing mode. This means we get 30 students of a similar age and background, and we assume they learn in the same way. Those who don’t cope, then fizzle away. But, with AI, we’re able to individualise student learning, giving lecturers the tools they need to personalise the material according to diverse learning strategies. This is new. It’s early days but we see tremendous potential here,” he explains.

eDWIN ZAMMIT

Edwin Zammit, Deputy Director for Research and Innovation,
Applied Research and Innovation Centre, MCAST

These ambitions were formulated after an intense process consisting of three main phases, according to Edwin Zammit, Deputy Director for Research and Innovation. “Our preparatory phase was, perhaps, the longest, since we needed to take stock of what was happening at MCAST and see where we wanted to go. So, we met with the stakeholders at the college – some of whom had been working on AI for 10 years – and kicked off a process of internal consultation,” he states.

Moreover, the game-changer, according to Dr Rizzo, is the strategy’s goal to assist and manage students throughout their learning experience with the support of AI. “Up until now, education has been stuck in time and we’ve tended to teach students in a batch processing mode. This means we get 30 students of a similar age and background, and we assume they learn in the same way. Those who don’t cope, then fizzle away. But, with AI, we’re able to individualise student learning, giving lecturers the tools they need to personalise the material according to diverse learning strategies. This is new. It’s early days but we see tremendous potential here,” he explains.

The result was the decision to place AI at the centre of the college’s entire operations, and, thus, further research was carried out to formulate the streams of action. To this end, the team also attended key conferences – such as EdTechXEurope in London and the Sana Labs AI Summit – to gain a deeper understanding of the international developments in the field. Moreover, the Centre communicated with its counterparts in the European Association for Higher Education Institutions (EURASHE), more specifically with universities of applied sciences, exchanging knowledge and information to ensure the current document was up-to-date with the latest ideas on the subject.

The second phase then consisted of “putting it all together”, Mr Zammit says, with the Centre currently in the third phase – the consultation period. “We’re awaiting feedback on the strategy from the public – both internally, within the college, and externally – as well as from industry stakeholders. We’ve even held a meeting with the Malta-AI steering committee to get their feedback,” he asserts.

This is an excerpt of an interview which initially featured in the October edition of Blockchain Island.


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