Artificial Intelligence in Education: Robot Teachers and the Uprising of Technology

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

Picture this: It’s the year 2022. The pandemic is a hazy memory and the future is bright. You’re dropping your child off to school as usual. They happily skip inside and greet their teacher, who has a metal exterior and glowing red eyes. Are Terminators for teachers a real possibility? Is this the future for schools if we allow technology to have a growing impact?

Possibly yes, not quite on the Terminator scale, but the future of artificial intelligence (AI) in schools isn’t quite as utopian as it seems. The benefits of AI on the academic side of learning have been proven, but our children need so much more from their education than academic learning. Can AI effectively take on every role a teacher has? Just because the academic benefits of AI have been proven, should we trust AI to have more of an influence in the classroom? British Education expert, Anthony Seldon predicted that robots will replace teachers by 2027. This date is fast approaching, suggesting that we should be aware of the impact this could have.

The increasing popularity of artificial intelligence in daily life goes hand in hand with the ever-growing popularity of technology itself. The Alexa sat on many kitchen counters shows that we are happy to allow AI into our homes; we’ve come to realise that AI can make life easier. This recognition has happened in schools with AI technology being developed to help teachers and students alike.

Photo by James McDonald on Unsplash

Personalised Learning

One particular strength of AI in schools is the development of ‘Personalised Learning. AI is able to retain large amounts of information about students in a small amount of time and personalise a teaching style accordingly to create a unique learning experience for each student. This process of information storage occurs notably faster than it does in a human. What’s more, the information is permanent and isn’t overridden by other data, whereas human memories are easily distorted by other information. This means that, using AI, teaching for every student will be personal and thorough every time. Most would consider this superior to a teacher’s understanding of their pupils – particularly as teachers are notoriously time limited.

However, it is worth considering the risk of AI storing information about our children. Although a teacher would know information about their students, a computer storing personal information could be a severe ethical issue. It is important to take into account whether the information is stored safely. Could private details about our children’s learning be shared with other sources?

The A Level Disaster

The uprising of AI comes with benefits. It also, however, comes with substantial risk. We’ve seen first-hand that AI can go badly wrong. The AI generated A-Level results of 2020 were a complete disaster. This is proof of the fact that technology can make things easier, but that we should consider very carefully the responsibilities we give our artificial assistants. As we can see, things can take a turn for the worst and, unfortunately for over 800,000 students this year in the UK, have drastic and public consequences. In the end, the responsibility was given back to teachers, proving that trying to take shortcuts with artificial intelligence isn’t always effective. In an article on The Conversation, Amany Elbanna and Jostein Engesmo state that ‘a study they executed showed that people working in AI-enabled decision-making could detect when its decisions are incorrect. This means they can act as early detection system for unfair and biased decision’. This shows that AI still can’t effectively work without human supervision. We’re placing such responsibility on something that hasn’t worked in the past – the past failures of AI lead to concern about its success in the future.

An Empathetic Robot? 

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

The role of a teacher entails much more than teaching academic material. Dealing with injury, behaviour problems and emotional distress all come hand in hand with the job. Despite proof of the academic benefits of AI, the nurturing role of a teacher is something that can’t be manufactured. These human qualities can’t be fed to a computer the way academic knowledge can. This raises the important question: will AI ever be able to nurture our children in the way a human teacher can? 

Computer scientists claim that AI in the future will be able to have a nurturing influence. Although AI doesn’t have the dominant role in a classroom, by the time it does (possibly 2027), will the technology be sufficiently developed to cater for emotional needs? There are gaps between what exists, what is possible and what is necessary for AI to be fully efficient in a school environment. We run the risk of AI replacing teachers when it is not fully capable of filling every role a teacher does, so we need to deepen our understanding of the profound implications of AI being a large part of schools. Ultimately, the teacher will always need to be there. Derek Haoyang Li, creator of Squirrel AI (an AI tutoring company) stated that ‘even if AI fulfilled all of its promise, human teachers would still play a crucial role helping kids learn social skills’. This is important to consider as it shows that in the opinion of Li, artificial intelligence at its full capability cannot entirely replace a teacher’s role.

Another question which is important to ask is if robots, when given full control, will be accustomed to recognising safeguarding issues. Teachers are trained to pick up on situations which don’t seem quite right, some may say they just have an inkling. Would a robot ever be able to pick up on this sort of behaviour, especially when behaviour that indicates distress will vary between every pupil? The Department of Science and Technology at Hong Kong University are developing AI technology called EmotionCues. This technology is able to read the facial expressions of pupils in a classroom and provide the class teacher with information about how engaged they are when played a video (an observation a class teacher couldn’t do on their own). It is clear that efforts are being made to make AI more human as well as academic. However, it seems the technology still isn’t advanced enough to recognise safeguarding issues.

Final Thoughts?

AI has already proved to be exceptionally helpful in academic learning in school. This, I think, is where AI’s place in schools lays.

It is important, as people who use technology, to question how much of an impact we should allow it to have over our lives. Just because its benefits have been proven in some areas doesn’t mean we should allow it to have full control and access to personal aspects of our lives. The impact of artificial intelligence in education is positive, although having an awareness of the negative impact it could have if given too much control is paramount in ensuring important aspects of education aren’t lost.

It’s important not to get swept up in shiny new gadgets and technology. A critical outlook is so important in a day and age where we allow technology to have such an impact on our lives. 

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