Will robots replace teachers?

Artificial intelligence is already in use in schools across the country and often in unseen ways. Vivienne Durham of GSA discusses the role of AI and wonders whether machines will replace teachers.

Photo: iStock.com/charles taylor
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In a recent poll of British school-children carried out by the firm, Smart Energy GB, almost half of the 1,000 8-16 year-olds questioned expect robots to replace their teachers within the next 50 years. It's a common belief. Not so long ago, we asked Year 7 girls at our schools what roles they thought robots would be performing in the future: replacing teachers was one of the top answers – as was picking up dog-poo! Personally, I'm not so sure about replacing teachers. I believe there are far too many guardians of 'the human' out there for any kind of artificial intelligence (AI) to perform the complex and subtle role of teacher.

Worldwide, the OECD, in a report published back in the summer, draws attention to the irreplaceable role of teachers, despite the undoubted rise of AI in the classroom. In the UK, I am a member of the Advisory Council for The Institute for Ethical AI in Education, which is working to ensure artificial intelligence is deployed ethically in our schools and other places of learning. The Institute is currently in the process of research and consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, drawing on existing knowledge such as The Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI, published earlier this year by the European Commission.

There are undoubtedly many benefits to be gained from harnessing robot technology in the classroom. However, the reality of what machine intelligence can do is actually far more subtle and interesting than a humanoid taking the register; although, physically taking the register is one of those jobs for which we might well deploy AI, freeing up teachers to spend more time interacting with students.

Artificial intelligence is already in use in schools across the country. Sometimes it is an intelligent machine we might recognise as a robot, but more often it is simply embedded in the vast range of constantly developing computer software we access through the apps on our laptops, tablets and other mobile devices.

At some of our schools, students and staff use adaptive digital learning platforms, whose AI algorithms adapt content and questions based on the individual needs of each student, saving time and highlighting gaps in learning. Teachers also use apps to create self-marking tests. Forget the old multiple-choice question papers – new, AI-powered tests can mark themselves by analysing students' short text answers and searching out vital key words and phrases.

"As robots take over more roles in society, the skills employers will deem necessary will be those at which robots do not excel. In fact, the sheer proliferation of AI in our lives will arguably make teachers, and their eminently human traits – such as empathy – even more valuable."

Schools are harnessing the latest developments in text-to-speech and speech-to-text software. Some students use apps to automatically add text titles as they narrate over their video. Students' comprehension of written passages can be enhanced by using text-to-speech readers, which turns digital books into audio books. This can help teachers to support students who have English as a second language or those with specific needs who benefit from more tailored learning. Some schools are also using digital assistants in the classroom, not only to respond to voice command questions, but also as a digital companion that reminds students of deadlines and events.

Many pupils are learning to code from an early age. Coding is the computational thinking behind robotics and AI. This can be a highly advantageous skill in a wide range of work environments. Children learn how to think logically, how to break down problems and identify what is relevant, and then learn to apply their findings in real life, human situations. At some of our schools, students have the option to join robotics clubs where they create, build and programme fully autonomous robots, even using components created by 3D printers, which are themselves robots.

I honestly don't believe any of this is a threat to 'real' teachers. On the contrary, AI creates more opportunities for teachers to innovate, inspire and enhance children's learning. The rapid development of AI is, however, a wake-up call to make sure we provide children with the skill sets they need to work in a world in which technology is everywhere. As robots take over more roles in society, the skills employers will deem necessary will be those at which robots do not excel. In fact, the sheer proliferation of AI in our lives will arguably make teachers, and their eminently human traits – such as empathy – even more valuable.

One recent example of this interplay between AI and humanity is at Cheltenham Ladies' College, where students have been experimenting with VR headsets. The girls took the technology to a local residential home where the delighted residents 'journeyed' to sub-Saharan Africa and the polar deserts of Antarctica. One resident was able to see Venice for the first time. Another went to Sydney Harbour, somewhere he had not visited since being stationed there with the Navy before the Sydney Opera House was built.

The advent of artificial intelligence is a call to action for our teachers to do what they do best – inspiring pupils to be ever more intellectually curious. The interaction between teacher and student will remain key, as teachers help the next generation to develop a creative, adaptable mindset, acquiring the 'soft skills' that will make them capable, self-confident adults. The challenge for schools is to provide the space and culture in which AI can thrive.

Vivienne Durham Photo

Vivienne Durham is Chief Executive of the Girls' Schools Association.

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