Artificial intelligence in schools: where’s the humanity?

Saturday 2 November, 10:0011:30, Frobisher 4-6Technological futures

Could artificial intelligence (AI) transform education? We may find out sooner rather than later. Schools are already tentatively exploring its potential with ‘adaptive learning’ applications, which identify gaps in a student’s knowledge and build personalised quizzes on the fly. These applications can now factor in non-educational information such as facial expression and typing speed, with surprising results. Priya Lakhani, founder of CENTURY Tech, claims to have identified an indicator for autism in a nanosecond difference in response time, a discovery which would have been impossible for a human teacher to make. Does this suggest that AI could complement teaching in interesting ways or that artificial intelligence is actually ‘better’ than human intelligence? How concerned should we be about the huge amounts of personal data required for machine learning to work?

Some believe that AI represents a fundamental challenge to the current model of teaching. Rose Luckin, co-founder of the UK’s Institute for Ethical Artificial Intelligence in Education, argues that AI’s ‘instant personalisation’ is the antidote to ‘one size fits all’ education and that it could be ‘a huge force for social mobility’. Pepper, a robot programmed by researchers at Middlesex University, told the Commons Education Select Committee that ‘a new way of thinking is needed by tomorrow’s workers. We will need people who can spot ideas and think across traditional sector divides to drive value from technological innovation.’ Pepper’s performance may have been scripted, but the sentiment it expressed is popular within the teaching profession. Should the purpose of education be to provide this new type of worker or is this too narrow a view of AI’s potential?

Sir Anthony Seldon, author of The Fourth Education Revolution: will artificial intelligence liberate or infantilise humanity?, argues that by taking care of the mechanical aspects of education, AI can free up teachers to focus on creativity and problem-solving – allowing both teachers and students to become more ‘fully’ human. What might this mean in practice and what do teachers make of the idea that our schools are churning out ‘robot-like’ workers?

Is education just a series of processes that can be automated, or was Oscar Wilde right that ‘nothing that is worth knowing can be taught’? What, if anything, is uniquely human about being a teacher and how important are the relationships between teacher, pupil and subject? Does the growing popularity of evidence-based teaching methods and scripted lessons mean that education is becoming more robotic anyway?