Invasion of the Teach-Bots: Beware or Welcome?

Big Brother is watching, but he is helping you learn.

By Jennifer Allore

We have all started to feel the impact of machine learning, data mining techniques, and learning analytics, which can be seen in most facets of our technological lives. We have fun with and have even grown dependent on Siri for help with our iPhones; we rely on Netflix to recommend shows; we are thankful to Google and Yahoo for managing spam on our email accounts, and perhaps a little less thankful when Facebook shows us products we have previously viewed online. All of these kinds of techniques are used to make machines do what humans can do, but better. Earlier this week, Elon Musk described the near-future artificial intelligence (AI) technology as being “sophisticated and godlike”.

Is it a coincidence that the world’s tech giants are investing in AI? Google, in particular, has been acquiring AI and robotics companies for the past several years. In fact, there has never been a better time to mandate the study of computer science in schools than now; it has been reported that AI will have taken 5 million jobs by the end of the decade. So, which side are you on? It is more important than ever for educators and administrators to not only embrace but to help guide the use of technology in the classroom. Here are three reasons why:

Potential for each student to have a virtual personalized tutor.

Big Brother is watching, but he is helping you learn. With the use of adaptive learning technologies, which are computer-based programs personalizing learning and assessment in real time based on student interactivity and data collection, it is possible for everyone to have their own personal tutor. These ‘Intelligent Tutoring Systems’ can track the cognitive processing of a student during the learning process as well as their ongoing performance, can provide formative feedback, and can encourage positive learning behaviours, such as metacognition and self-regulation. Can you imagine the impact on student learning and achievement gaps if everyone, regardless of income, had access to personalized education?

What? An end to standardized testing?

If ‘intelligent tutors’ – let’s just call them Teach-bots – can give immediate feedback about student progress, and even their knowledge state or state of mind, do students need to take standardized tests? Pearson Education doesn’t think so. In their recent report, Intelligence Unleashed: An argument for AI in Education, suggests that there would not be a need for traditional testing. Instead, assessments would comprise of higher order thinking activities and collaborative projects, hallmarks of 21st Century learning, and students would be assessed while the learning and teaching were happening.

Wait there’s more – a personalized… MOOC?

Many of us have enrolled in a massive open online class (MOOC) at some point; far fewer have completed the course. In fact, one study found that less than 7% of people finish. AI researcher, Ashok Goel, suggests that the low completion rate is due to the lack of course teaching assistants and says AI can change that. He secretly added an AI Teaching Assistant (TA) to a graduate computer science course. After the AI TA was able to learn from its human TA counterparts, most students had no idea it was a machine. The potential to add AI TAs to MOOCs would not only improve student satisfaction and retention but could eventually allow for a more personalized open learning experience. The possibilities are real.

Although the role of the teacher as is understood today will eventually (and dramatically) change, it is still a role that will be more valuable than ever, despite the prevalent fear that does exist among educators. Unfortunately, some of this fear has probably hindered the potentially positive and constructive progress and implementation of more pervasive AI educational innovations.

Certainly, however, it is not to say that we won’t take precautions. Even tech giants like Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk have expressed real concerns about the future of AI. In fact, Google’s company, DeepMind, has recently developed a framework for AI programs, which would allow a human to “safely interrupt” an AI machine so it could not learn how to prevent the human interruption. It’s called the ‘Kill Switch’. That perhaps says it all. But that doesn’t mean we run the other way. It is our duty as educators to productively and ethically contribute to the learning revolution – complete with teach-bots or not!


Author: Jennifer Allore

Jennifer Allore is a Master of Education student at UOIT focusing on education and digital technologies. She is an adult educator with over a decade of experience specializing in English language education.

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