Monica Ares

Executive Director of Imperial College Business School’s Innovation, Digital Education & Analytics (IDEA) Lab Monica Arés tells us how new technology will make education more engaging, impactful and – ultimately – more human

Given the pace and extent of technological development over the past few decades, it is surprising that education has remained a largely static, standardised experience. This is a situation Monica Arés, Executive Director of Imperial College Business School’s IDEA Lab, is determined to change.  

“Some people are fortunate to encounter a mentor or teacher who ignites those ‘aha’ moments, sparking the curiosity that inspires lifelong learning. These transformative experiences, however, are usually the exception, not the norm," says Monica.  

“Through rapid advancements in artificial intelligence [AI] and extended reality [XR], we are witnessing a unique convergence of our digital and physical worlds, which is unlocking an entirely new set of tools to build solutions. It's a rare moment in the trajectory of the future of education that we’ve all been longing for, that will increase engagement and retention by unlocking personalised learning at scale.  

“Our job at the IDEA Lab is to figure out what the future of learning looks like. Our mission is twofold: crafting a visionary path that increases access to education and fundamentally transforms how we learn, and simultaneously showcasing our progress and current capabilities as we step into the future.” 

AI-driven learning 

A pioneering initiative at the IDEA Lab involves the integration of AI into the learning process. This will see course materials and lecturers' personas integrated to create AI avatars and simulations, which will help to transform the learning experience from passive content consumption to interactive dialogues. 

Students will be able to converse with the avatars to deepen their understanding of a topic area. “And they can then come into class and have a much more robust conversation, because they've been able to make sense of it themselves beyond just a video telling them what to learn,” says Monica. 

The symbiosis between human intellect and technology will enhance critical thinking, problem solving and interpersonal abilities

Of course, there are risks to bear in mind. “We have to decide if we're going to use photorealistic avatars, or a different representation so there's a clear distinction. It has to be clear for students when it’s their lecturer speaking, and when it’s the AI version that’s there to help talk things through and work things out in a less formal way.” 

Being more human 

“The combination of AI and XR can also help us create simulations to practise soft skills – empathy, negotiation and leadership – which are increasingly valued in business, but difficult to assess and teach with traditional methods,” says Monica. “We can now put you in scenarios where you have to engage in conversations and, by measuring your natural language, eye gaze and body language, we can offer feedback and tips to become more effective.” 

This highlights how innovation at the IDEA Lab is not just about integrating more technology into education. “It’s about leveraging these advancements to recentre our focus on essential human skills,” says Monica. “The symbiosis between human intellect and technology will enhance critical thinking, problem solving and interpersonal abilities, equipping students to tackle global challenges, from healthcare to climate change, with a new set of tools.” 

For Monica, there’s no doubt that Imperial has the pedigree to lead this change: “We've always prided ourselves on being innovative, and that gives us the flexibility to be brave. We're collaborating with partners across the industry to actively shape the future, fostering a learning environment where technology and humanity converge. The Imperial IDEA Lab can be a place where we take risks, try things out, and integrate our findings to unlock extraordinary potential.” 

by Temoor Iqbal