AI and Education: innovative education and the future of learning

Following the pledge by the Education Secretary Damien Hinds to reduce teachers long working hours, and to strip away “pointless tasks,” the question that comes to mind is: how can this pledge be implemented in real terms? Especially if we are to entice new talent into the teaching sector. Perhaps one of the ways to embrace the Education Secretary’s ambition is to embrace new technology.

For years now AI, robotics and machine learning have become commonplace in daily life — from Netflix suggested shows, to Amazon shopping recommendations, to self-parking cars. It also has the potential to transform the way we teach. By embracing the technology, the quality of education that our pupils receive could significantly improve.

Consider how our classrooms have changed over the past decade. It wasn’t so long ago that a tablet and  an electronic whiteboard would have seemed like flights of fancy. Today, they are commonplace. And with billions of pounds being invested in AI — more than what was invested in other digital technologies deployed in schools — the spread of AI in education could be swifter than when computers were first introduced to education.

When you take into account the fact that in half a million primary schools in the UK, students are being taught in classes of 31 pupils or more — 5 above the international average — any assistance, especially that which is highly personalised, should be seen as a big step forward. In fact, AI has already been trialled in UK schools. Digital service Whizz Education — a virtual AI powered maths tutor — claim that just an hour spent each week with its AI powered assistant over the course of an academic year can speed up a student’s learning by over 18 months when compared to peers who don’t use the product.

A similar project, Third Space Learning, has been successfully trialed across 4,000 primary schools in the UK. With it’s intelligent AI powered software, tasks are assigned to pupils in accordance with their learning ability, with topics that they struggle on repeated until they really get to grips with problems and their solutions. Not only does this allow students to get a fuller, more rounded understanding of a subject, it could help neurodiverse students accrue knowledge, especially for those who don’t engage as well in a conventional classroom environment.

AI is not just setup to help pupils either. It holds huge potential benefits for teachers. Marking books and exams can be laborious work — with most of it needing to be completed outside of teaching hours. Teachers are strapped for time as it is, and AI could help alleviate this problem. For multiple choice exams, and fill in the box testing, software is already intelligent enough to complete these tasks without the need of a teacher. It also can produce reports which can suggest which problems and topics the whole class has problems with — enabling teachers to identify where to focus lessons. The main benefit, however, is the amount of time it will save teachers. Time we can focus on lesson planning, classroom teaching and personal development.

The potential of AI is not just limited to current teachers. Making teaching more technologically advanced could make it a more attractive profession to tech-savvy young graduates. Reducing the reputation of teaching being a career that comes with the tedium of endless marking will entice those who really want to directly contribute to the development of future generations too.

AI technology, such as IBM’s Watson, can also take the place of a teacher outside of the classroom. When working on coursework and homework problems, having the technology on hand to provide answers to questions and solve queries could help students learn in any situation. In the US, at Georgia Tech — a college in Atlanta, Georgia — an assistant named Jill Watson, based on IBM Watson technology, helped to solve student problems. Whilst it wasn’t perfect to begin with, its machine learning capabilities allowed it to accrue knowledge as the project progressed. By the end of the project, Jill Watson was able to answer 40% of student enquiries. Just imagine how much that figure would increase over time, especially in an environment that requires less complex knowledge than a US college — a UK primary school for example.

The rise of AI isn’t going to halt anytime soon. And the education system shouldn’t miss out on the advantages that the technology holds. If it will allow for more focused teaching in the classroom, and greater assistance outside of school, surely it is a technology that we in the education sector should wholeheartedly embrace?

Future technologies, such as AI and machine learning, aren’t future anymore. They’re here now, and they’re here to stay. Five years ago we embraced coding into our national curriculum. Young people are more aware of technology than ever before. In ten years time, AI will seem just as essential to classroom learning as computers are now.
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