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Wheeling out a robot to ‘discuss’ AI was artificial and unintelligent

Pepper the robot's visit to Parliament was an ill-judged stunt that totally missed the mark, writes Tes' Ed Dorrell

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Forgive me for being a little grumpy, but I suspect I wasn’t alone in being somewhat infuriated by the Commons Education Select Committee’s decision to call a robot to give “evidence” this week.

Maybe it was the dark evenings, the fact that we’re now deep into the Longest Term or the gloom of Brexit that left me with a severe case of humour failure over the appearance of Pepper the Robot to “discuss” the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on education.

It might also have been that there are many, many more pressing issues facing schools than a robot cracking prerecorded gags – not least of all the ongoing recruitment crisis, deepening funding cuts and Ofsted’s radical proposals to reform inspection.

Whatever the reason, I completely failed to see the funny side. There is a place for both fun and stunts in politics, but Tuesday morning wasn’t it.

Another reason for my frustration was that I had been under the impression the conversation around technology in education had rather moved on from this kind of grandstanding. (Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that MPs have been behind the curve.)

To be clear, I have no problem with the select committee discussing edtech and AI, I just wish it hadn’t resembled a sci-fi convention. Professor Michael Wooldridge, head of computer science at the University of Oxford, told the BBC the stunt was an “embarrassing gimmick” that gave AI “a bad name”. He was right.

It’s not even as if the issue needed a gimmick to highlight its importance: there is no shortage of academics and technologists exploring the impact that AI might have on the future of teaching and learning.

Edtech grows up

What is needed now is a mature conversation. And if you talk to people in the edtech sector that is in large part what is happening – it’s not sexy, but it is practical and interesting.

Gone is much of the future-gazing nonsense. There is less grandiose talk of “jobs that are yet to be invented” or “disrupting the 19th-century model of teaching” than in years gone by. (The Pepper stunt would have been more at home on a stand at the technology trade show Bett in 2007 than in the mother of parliaments in 2018.)

The direction of travel more recently has been very much about how practical tech could help teachers to reduce workload and costs, and drive curriculum efficiencies.

Without question, there is a place for AI as well. Colin Hegarty’s online platform HegartyMaths is a prime example of how something brilliant can help teachers to do their jobs better. And very successful it is, too.

Revolution is out; iterative, subtle and clever – boring, even – teaching support is in.

Education secretary Damian Hinds gets it. Through more than one of his speeches and articles this year, it has become evident that he is, in fact, much more pro-tech than at least three of his predecessors. But he is also clear that the edtech sector should focus on workload and cost-savings. In short, making the lives of teachers easier and more efficient. Not doing them out of a job.

Hinds is spot on.

I don’t know how much time and energy was expended organising Pepper’s big day out in Parliament, but it would have been better spent on interrogating education policy and government spending claims. At a time when schools are battling with financial and manpower issues that are close to existential, the whole exercise was at best tone-deaf.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes. He tweets @Ed_Dorrell