With the start of fall semester, C21U welcomes Ashok Goel to the team in the role of chief scientist. Goel will lead C21U's research agenda, with a focus on education innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI). He will work in tandem with the comprehensive C21U unit, including the core research and digital learning technology teams, the Commission on Creating the Next in Education (CNE) Program Office, as well as our new sister unit, the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing (CEISMC). 

Get to know our new chief scientist through this recent conversation about his work and the future of higher education.

An image of C21U's new Chief Scientist, Ashok Goel, smiling as he gives a classroom lecture.

Can you tell us a bit about your history at Georgia Tech?

I joined Georgia Tech as an assistant professor of computer science in the (erstwhile) School of Information and Computer Science in the fall of 1989.The next year, Georgia Tech elevated the old school into the College of Computing and about fifteen years back it created new schools within the College. Now, I'm a professor of computer science and human-centered computing in the School of Interactive Computing. Thus, I've been here for thirty years. Georgia Tech has changed a lot during this time.

What are the primary topics of your research?

Since the mid-1980's, I've conducted research into artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive science, and human-centered computing. The foci of my research have been human and computational design and creativity, especially design thinking, systems thinking, analogical thinking, visual thinking and meta-thinking. For the last decade or so, we've also investigated these kinds of thinking in the context of human and computational learning and education.

I see huge opportunities for artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and human-centered computing to impact education and training.

What are some specific ways that you believe Georgia Tech is Creating the Next in Education?

Georgia Tech is a global leader in “Creating the Next in Education." I was in Brazil earlier this year to give a talk on AI in learning and education at an international conference. I was a pleasantly surprised by the number of people who knew and asked questions about Georgia Tech’s innovative educational programs and initiatives including OMSCS and CNE.

I think two things distinguish Georgia Tech’s efforts from those at many other universities across the world. First, we are proactive and deliberative about educational innovation. Both OMSCS and CNE are good examples of this (but there are many more). Second, as a technological university, we understand technology a little more deeply and thus are better prepared to use and develop technologies to support human learning and education.

With rapid changes taking place across higher ed as an industry, how has educational research also changed?

Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to visit academic institutions ranging from Harvard and Purdue to the conferences of the technical college systems in Georgia and Kentucky. In these meetings, I've observed a common pattern: research on education increasingly views education as a socio-technical system at the intersection of technology, cognition, and culture.

So far the focus of much research on educational technology in this context has been around the question, "Given what we know about human cognition and culture, how can we develop new technologies to support human learning?" But now a new question is becoming increasingly salient, "Given what we know about technology, cognition and culture, what new models of learning can we develop?"

I find this shift in emphasis intriguing.

What are some of the biggest education trends that you predict will impact learners and educators over the next few years?

For much of human history around the world, students have come to schools of learning for obtaining their formal education. In contrast, the biggest trend now is that we are taking education to wherever learners live and work.

There are two main reasons for this trend. First, people increasingly want opportunities for learning over their entire lifetime. We may expect students in a narrow age group to leave their home for schooling. However, it is unlikely that learners of all age ranges can or will repeatedly leave their homes for education. Thus, we must take education to them where they need it and when they it. There is huge unmet demand for this kind of education. Second, modern communication and information technologies have given us the means for delivering education in many fields directly to learners where they need it, when they need it.

Of course, this is easier to do this in some subjects, such as algorithm analysis, than in others, such as, for example, art and design. Thus, we must start with the topics that we can deliver at distance effectively and then, over time, develop new technologies as well as new models of learning for other subjects and fields.

How do you envision the university of 2040?

I expect that the university of 2040 will be fundamentally different from that of today in two key ways. I already have alluded to some of these fundamental shifts in educational delivery: lifetime education, global presence, worker training, and intensive use of technology for personalized learning and advising. The report of the Provost’s Commission on Creating the Next in Education (CNE) describes these themes in detail and C21U already is vigorously pursuing this vision.

I expect that the second fundamental shift will be at the enterprise level. Like most major research universities, Georgia Tech is a vast enterprise with hundreds of offices and thousands of services. I envision that the Georgia Tech of 2040 will use technology in unprecedented ways to support the thousands of services not only in education, but also in research and administration. This will help improve not only the quality of learning, but also the quality of decision making, design, and discovery, leading to better quality of work and life. I am excited to join C21U at this moment of large-scale transformation.

About the Faculty Member

A photo of Ashok Goel instructing a male student in a classroom setting.Ashok K. Goel is a Professor of Computer Science and Human-Centered Computing, and Director of the Design & Intelligence Laboratory in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology. He is also an adjunct professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Computational Science and Engineering and School of Mechanical Engineering. In addition, he is a Fellow of Georgia Tech’s Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems.

For more than thirty five years, Goel has conducted research into artificial intelligence, cognitive science and human-centered computing, with a focus on computational design, modeling and creativity. He is Editor of AAAI’s AI Magazine and Associate Editor of Design Research Society’s Design Science Journal. He is Co-Chair of the 41st Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci 2019), and serves on the Steering Committees of Advances in Cognitive Systems, Creativity and Cognition, and Computational Creativity.

For more than a decade, Goel's research has increasingly focused on AI in human learning and education. In 2014, he and David Joyner developed an online course on Knowledge-Based AI as part of Georgia Tech’s Online Masters of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) program. In 2016, Ashok pioneered the development of Jill Watson, a virtual teaching assistant for answering questions in online discussion forums. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently called virtual assistants exemplified by Jill Watson one of the most transformative educational technologies in the digital era. Ashok is a recipient of AAAI’s 2019 Outstanding AI Educator Award.