When a Computer Science professor in the United States used a virtual teaching assistant to answer his students’ queries, it made international headlines. Not because he’d used the system but because the class didn’t realise. It was only after the course had finished that the professor revealed that ‘Jill Watson’ wasn’t a real person.
In fact, only one student had had suspicions. The reason? She answered questions much quicker than other teaching assistants.
Obviously, Jill wasn’t a robot walking around the classroom. She was a program that the students could email with problems and queries. But the fact that the students didn’t notice they were communicating with a software programme shows how far AI has come.
The key to Jill’s believability owed much to her use of language. By using informal phrases when appropriate she was able to seem human. There was only one slip up, when she said ‘design’ instead of ‘project’.
So, if robots can now fool us into thinking they’re human, is it time for teachers to make way for AI?
Yes: Robots are better than humans at teaching
- Robots are much more efficient than teachers ever will be
While teachers are forced to deliver the majority of learning in a whole-class setting, artificial intelligence can deliver tailored learning, carefully evaluating every response to calibrate when to stick with the current topic and when to move onto the next.
The brightest pupils can be given additional work, while those that need additional help would receive it, all within the same class.
AI offers almost unlimited possibilities in terms of identifying student’s strengths and interests and building on them.
- Even teachers admit that robots are good
Perhaps surprisingly, teachers seem to like robots, once they’ve worked with them at least.
Research has found that while teachers generally expected robots to be disruptive, in reality they reported that they were not and teachers often went on to develop numerous positive ideas about the robot’s potential as a new educational tool for their classrooms.
No: Robots can never be as good as teachers
- A teacher’s role is not just to teach
A teacher is also looking after the students in the class, spotting those experiencing difficulties and supporting them as necessary. In this sense it is one of the most human jobs we have.
Reading subtle social cues that students need help is not something robots do well.
- People are social animals
Humans like to learn in groups and they like to learn from other people. Robots will never be able to match humans on that count. Another factor which is likely to be irreplaceable: the ability to inspire. Teaching facts and theories is one thing, relating the things you teach to everyday life is quite another.
Teachers are there to answer the really difficult questions when students get stuck. Teachers are there to share their experiences in life, to relate to the students one human to another. It is for this reason that teachers’ jobs are safe for the foreseeable future.
So the answer is…
As so often the case in human vs machine debates, perhaps the reality lies somewhere in between – a combination of the best of what people do with the best of what AI can offer.
As Rose Luckin, a professor of learner centred design at University College London, puts it: “What we are very interested in is the right blend of human and artificial intelligence in the classroom – identifying that sweet spot.”
According to Luckin, AI provides a unique opportunity to assess which teaching strategies are working and to individualise teaching.
“It would be able to say, for this child at the moment, (teaching) is working well,” she said. “You would be able to look back over their reading process and see which interventions worked. The potential for the use of AI to make education tractable and visible is huge.”
However, she predicts that the insights gleaned from AI will often be applied by human teachers. “What I’m really concerned about is that people don’t run away with the idea that kids have to be plugged into the computer,” she said. “It’s about so much more than that.”
It seems robots are likely to be used in classrooms as learning tools, not teachers.