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Artificial Intelligence should be disrupting our education sector

· Allana Ferguson,AI,Education

Artificial intelligence (AI) is disrupting virtually every market sector, and yet applications in the classroom lag in comparison to the transformation we are already starting to see in the broader economy.

Many functions that teachers carry out cannot be automated; machines cannot replace the empathy and self-awareness vital to a student’s educational development. Recent cases show that people prefer human experts and are hesitant to trust artificial systems even in cases where these experts are wrong. But AI is rapidly becoming a potential facilitator in creating a new personalised learning platform that could provide both a higher quality education for students and help shoulder the more transactional burdens teachers face day-to-day, such as grading papers or routine record-keeping tasks. This means that teachers can spend more time on what Professor Rose Luckin, a leading expert that informed the United Kingdom’s AI education strategy, refers to as “meta-level skills” in which students develop deeper levels of knowledge of their own skills and abilities, which is a quality difficult for computers to mimic.

AI is beginning to impact the sector by accumulating and analyzing interactions in the classroom. Algorithms, which identify patterns and correlate expansive sets of data arm teachers with information not readily available in expanding class sizes and can provide a solution to the “one size fits all” approach. Instead of being viewed as a barrier to the irreplaceable human aspects of a teacher-student relationship, AI should be an opportunity to enhance it. Course lectures at university for example, are designed to educate a large group of students with different educational backgrounds, abilities and experiences. It would be unreasonable to expect teaching staff to address each student individually throughout the lecture to ensure everyone is on the same page. This gap between teacher and individual student can be bridged by implementing AI in education settings. Some companies, such as Third Pace and Zoomi in the US are starting to do this by capturing and analyzing behavioural data in the classroom. This data can provide a rich insight into a student’s engagement and understanding of specific topics. By creating digital profiles of students, AI can identify and direct teachers to the areas that individuals need extra help, which could boost student achievement and provide teaching support.

By more actively adopting such resources, AI can support teachers to become more efficient and effective in the classroom, and therefore allow them to spend more time on the most important elements of education: creating high quality content, delivering engaging lectures and lessons, and addressing areas that their students find more difficult. This provides teachers with an opportunity to help students develop other essential skills such as creativity, confidence, teamwork and resilience, which cannot be taught by AI. This creates a learning environment that is more flexible, inclusive, engaging and personalized.

The challenge with AI in the classroom, much like any reform or technological revolution, is to have the policy, curriculum or even cultural changes keeping pace with what can be delivered via technology. As part of a broader debate about whether our education system is preparing the next generation with the right tools and problem-solving abilities for a transforming workforce that will steadily see many jobs and occupations replaced with algorithms, policy makers need to look at how this revolution can be embraced for the benefit of current and future students and, ultimately, our society of 2050. Unfortunately, the enormous potential of AI remains unrealized. While the NSW Education Department has been leading the charge in recent months in consulting with experts in AI to understand how schools must adjust, AI in the education sector does not often progress past the lab or lecture hall. While the Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda can be commended for its focus on improving students’ digital literacy, Australia is yet to adopt a national strategy to fast-track the implementation of AI in the classroom to improve teaching itself.

Crucially, the future is not a case of AI usurping teachers. Rather, the sector must shape a future in which the role of teachers ultimately transforms, where their time can be used more efficiently and effectively, and their expertise is better leveraged and deployed.

Allana Ferguson is a Policy Intern at FPL Advisory.

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