I have to confess that it’s been a while since I’ve written something for our blog. Suffering from a lack of inspiration, I did a quick Google to see what others were writing about, and was greeted with a flood of articles and thought-pieces on Artificial Intelligence and education. I’m not suggesting that this a new topic, however, the summer months seemed to have inspired a lot of articles about AI. Brilliant, I’m now inspired to write about something I don’t know a great deal about. I’m not sure this is the right way to go…. But perhaps I am not alone with my limited knowledge, so I’m hoping there is some value in me gathering up the key topics I saw being discussed and regurgitating back here. So, here is the top themes I stumbled across.
But what about teachers’ jobs?!
I nearly cried seeing this written over and over again. The same old question related to technology and teachers has been debated for years (including by yours truly in a blacked out auditorium during a power failure at eLearning Africa, Benin!), and we have not seen any signs of technology of any sort replacing teachers yet. In fact, the bigger challenges are around how stretched teachers are, not that they are likely to become redundant. If you were, let’s say, to alleviate some of their workload via, I don’t know, some automated processes, then perhaps teachers would have a little more time on their hands to dedicate to one on one interactions with students. The Australian Computer Society President Anthony Wong is quoted as saying that it’s not about replacing jobs, but “replacing tasks or activities". Additionally, he says: "There's actually no need for anyone not to have a job, because there's almost an unbounded number of jobs we could create if we wanted." Indeed. And, if teachers jobs, or any other’s jobs for that matter, do disappear as a result of AI making them redundant, I prefer to think that it will look more like a technological utopianism. Sign me up.
Ethics and regulating robot morals
Opening the debate around ethics and AI is to go down a rabbit hole. What is meant by ethics? Whose values are we measuring against? How do we regulate values and morals within the various contexts they will appear? If you can get a black and white answer to either of those questions then you are ahead of where the majority of debates are stuck. Beyond this, who will regulate? Who will pass the laws? Who will enforce them? How do you punish a robot? What’s your personal responsibility within a larger organisation? Still, with all this up in the air, the British Standards Institute has issued the BS 8611, which was written by a committee of scientists, academics, ethicists, philosophers and users to provide guidance on potential hazards and protective measures. It identifies potential ethical hazards that arise from the growing number of robots and autonomous systems being used in everyday life. The document touches on some broad (and obvious?) ethical moralities that would have been helpful in avoiding the Skynet catastrophe. Robots should not be designed to kill or harm humans – an excellent starting point. It notes that humans are the responsible agents over the robots and that there must be a clear line of accountability when determining who is responsible for any robot and its behaviour. It also covers some more grey areas, such as whether an emotional bond with a robot is acceptable, in particular when the robot has been designed to interact with children or the elderly. You can download the BS 8611 here for the cost of several bottles of decent St Emilion – take your pick.
What are we currently seeing AI do for education?
Whilst it has been noted that AI in education is not as far advanced as other sectors, eg. The automotive industry and its driverless cars; nor is it being leveraged to its fullest potential just yet, there are a couple of broad areas where AI is being utilised.
It is possible for teachers to automate grading for many kinds of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank testing, with automated grading of student writing predicted for the not too distant future. Whilst essay-grading software is still in its infancy and not quite up to par, it will most certainly improve over the coming years. By automating these tasks, it frees up the time of teachers so they are more able to focus in-class activities and meaning interactions with student. Repeat, not replacing, but enhancing the classroom experience.
By mining data, AI can identify areas where courses need improvements. This means that where there are concepts or sections of material that are frequently misunderstood, the actual course content is likely to need to clarifying or refining. Coursera, is already using this intelligence. By identifying where large numbers of students are found to submit the wrong answer to a homework assignment, the system alerts the teacher and will offer future students a customised message that offers hints to the correct answer. Genius.
IBM and Microsoft are reportedly working on classroom applications, with other examples of AI tutoring including Thinkster Math and Carnegie Learning. AI has been used as a teaching assistant and you can read an interesting story here about a professor who implanted a TA on his forum – without his students knowing the difference between that AI and human TAs.
What lies ahead?
After doing quite a bit of reading, it felt like we are still in the nascent stages of thought with what AI can do to enhance education. I found that much of the AI was echoing the promise of ICT - universal access, lifelong learning, personalised learning, mentors or tutors for every learner, real-time learning….At the very least! There are certainly many, mostly isolated examples of AI innovating educational scenarios, but the system is crying out for some major innovative changes and AI holds so much untapped promise. I look forward to a day when technology really levels the playing field in terms of gaining an education. Will it ever be able to break down the barriers between Eton, Harvard, or state education? Will universal access ever really be exactly that? Will classrooms as we know it become a thing of the past? All exciting prospects to look forward to…….Right now though, I’d just settle for a robot to write these darn blogs for me.