Q&A with Bob Kamei: ALSET’s Founding Director on the Future of EdTech

Professor Robert (“Bob”) Kamei is the founding director of ALSET. On Nov 1, he will be speaking at EdTechXAsia about learning science and what it means for education technology. In this Q&A, he offers some initial thoughts. 

What is ALSET and why did you help start it?

After spending a decade as Vice Dean of Education at Duke-NUS Medical School, I launched ALSET last year to focus on the application of learning science and education technology to undergraduate programs at NUS. I enjoy being involved in cutting-edge research, but my favourite part of the job is working directly with students to help them develop the right skills, habits, and attitudes for learning.

What are some of the key challenges and opportunities in edtech today? 

I believe that edtech leaders must increasingly recognize the importance of reaching people who are being left behind by technology. Even as edtech helps broaden the availability of high-quality educational opportunities, we must ensure that these opportunities are available to everyone, not just those with access to digital technologies and a strong understanding of how to use them.

I also think that the edtech field will also be forced to confront the fact that technology is not an end unto itself—the teaching and learning is what matters most. Unless we ultimately merge with machines and all decide to upload our brains into the cloud, there will always be a time when it makes sense to put down our smartphones, pick up an old-fashioned notebook, and get back to basics.

Even so, advances in learning analytics will help improve education. They will enable better measurement and understanding of learning processes. While we’re collecting ever-larger troves of education data all the time, we still sometimes struggle to assess whether learning is actually happening. This is particularly true when it comes to skills like teamwork and communication.

What other technologies do you believe have the potential to transform education?

One area that excites me is the growing potential of neuroscience techniques to drive better understanding of how we learn. As we gain better tools for peering inside the brain, I expect many of the mysteries of cognition will be revealed.

I’m also excited about the potential impact of AI in education. At ALSET, we’re privileged to be working with some of the world’s leading experts in personalization, dynamic experimentation, recommender systems, and other disciplines that leverage the growing power of AI technologies. While sometimes overhyped, we remain optimistic that they will advance quickly and ultimately help improve learning outcomes for students.

What would you say have been the key areas of change in the past 5 years that are impacting edtech today? Anything unexpected that surprised you? 

Before joining ALSET, I led the implementation of blended learning programs at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School. This includes helping to develop a pedagogical method called TeamLEAD, which 10 years ago was one of the first in the world to incorporate the “flipped classroom” approach in medical education. Given the tremendous results that we saw from that work, I’m frankly disappointed that traditional lecture formats are still so common, but I’m hopeful that this will change in coming years.

Founded in 2016, ALSET’s mission is improve education through the application of learning science and education technology. The Institute conducts original research on learning science, technology, and pedagogy; promotes novel and entrepreneurial projects that improve learning outcomes; and works to ensure that the latest research and learning technologies have broad impact, both at NUS and also in the broader education community.