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AI will never be education's deus ex machina

Artificial intelligence has potential to support great teaching – but it can't replace great teachers, writes Ann Mroz

AI is being used to deliver teaching in parts of the world where there are no teachers

Artificial intelligence has potential to support great teaching – but it can't replace great teachers, writes Ann Mroz

The past few weeks have been interesting, most notably for education secretary Damian Hinds finally poking his head above the parapet after a good couple of months behind closed doors swotting up like crazy on the workings of the Department for Education.

The two pronouncements following Hinds’ self-imposed purdah were greeted in very different ways. There was delight at the easing of accountability pressures (bit.ly/HindsAccountability) and dismay at his recycled grammar school and faith school plans (bit.ly/GrammarsReborn). How could he get it so right and so wrong?

The answer is: very easily.

The government has always had little chance of controlling 23,000 or so schools from Sanctuary Buildings. This chance diminishes to zero as ministers run around trying to figure how to deliver a hard Brexit, a soft Brexit – in fact, any kind of Brexit.

The regional schools commissioners were treading on Ofsted’s toes (Amanda Spielman is not a woman to suffer in silence) and national schools commissioner Sir David Carter became surplus to requirements (once the ghost of the pesky Sir Michael Wilshaw was finally laid to rest), despite doing an outstanding job in school improvement. Never forget that politics is a brutal game.

The promise of edtech

So a bright spark in the DfE came up with the wheeze of packing up all the department’s troubles, wrapping them in fine words, tying a big bow on them and giving them as a present to heads and teachers.

To a sector that gets few gifts from politicians, it was gratefully accepted. And so everyone was softened up for the big nasty that was always going to be delivered: the expansion of grammar schools and faith schools.

The distraction of grammars – the dead cat that never stops smelling – also bought Hinds more time on recruitment and retention, which is overwhelmingly the biggest problem facing him on schools.

He has “warmly welcomed” plans to allow British international schools to award qualified teacher status to career changers and graduates (bit.ly/InternationalQTS) but with a massive shortage of teachers, the effects of which will batter him at any election, he knows that’s not enough.

Hence his interest in education technology, which he has also welcomed, but cautiously and only in terms of easing workload. Technology has, of course, promised many false dawns in education, but artificial intelligence offers more hope than many past efforts, if adopted and sold wisely.

Right now, AI is being used to deliver teaching in areas of the world where there are no teachers (remember that, according to Unesco, almost 69 million more teachers are needed by 2030 to achieve universal primary and secondary education as part of the Sustainable Development Goals).

It’s a reasonable alternative to no teacher or even a bad teacher. But it cannot take the place of a good teacher. For while AI can replicate human endeavour, it can never replace it.

For example, I have developed a bad habit of referring to AI as artificial insemination, instead of artificial intelligence (note to conference organisers: this is a risk when I chair a panel – you have been warned).While I am able to correct myself when my brain feeds me this bad data; AI cannot.

What AI could do, however, is work symbiotically with a good teacher. With AI, “I’ve got information that I’ve just never had access to before that helps me understand my students’ needs more effectively,” says Rose Luckin, an expert in AI and education at UCL’s Institute of Education and a former school teacher.

So fear not: there’s little danger of AI ever replacing teachers. A real human providing genuine human relationships will always trump the artificial, however intelligent it may be.

But politicians? Now you’re talking…

@AnnMroz

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