Could artificial intelligence solve the teacher workload problem?

Computers may not have the heart for teaching, but they do have the technological capacity to mark exam papers, writes one former journalist

Richard Garner

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According to the 1960s pop hit, it was the year 2525 when we all started to notice dramatic changes to the world we live in.

A conference held to debate the future of England's exam system heard that – in exam halls – the time might be a touch nearer. 2025 to be exact.

That, according to one projection put forward at the conference organised by the Westminster Education Forum, is the date by which humans will be removed from the marking of the exam system and artificial intelligence will take over.

The projection is extreme, but the system is already on course for computers to have a far bigger role in the marking of the system.

It throws up some interesting dilemmas. For instance, what impact will it have on the appeals system and who will check scripts for appeals?

The best guess is that there will be a need for an appeals system: imagine a rogue computer in a bad mood marking students down. Ah, no, they don't have them (moods, I mean). But there could still be a rogue computer and the speculation was that we would have to put a human in charge of checking the appeals. At last, a role for homo sapiens. 

The conference also heard that exam halls were falling behind the rest of the education system in coming to terms with the modern world. For instance, much of the classroom work is now done on laptops but students have to return to the world of pens and papers when they sit their exams.

There are such things as exam-ready laptops stored in a cupboard, according to Caron Downes, a classics teacher from St Peter's School in York. However, there are so many opportunities for a glitch to enter the technology as the student's script has to be signed for and transferred on to another laptop for marking that it hardly inspires confidence.

Interestingly enough, research shows that students are less nervous and less stressed about sitting their exam if they are allowed to take it on the same technology they use in the classroom. In other words, reverting to pen and paper tests is a major turn-off for them. 

When you think about it, though, it makes sense, students are comfortable with what they feel is normal.

All this, of course, has quite major implications for teachers' workload which is still the reason most cited for teachers leaving the profession.

However, Darren Northcott, from the NASUWT teaching union, while arguing there was great scope for reducing teachers' workload through artificial intelligence (AI), or at least for reducing the pressure on teachers to volunteer for poorly paid marking work, there would have to be serious studies as to whether AI was more effective rather than a headlong rush towards embracing new technology.

I was reminded of an apocryphal story that Lord Puttnam used to tell when he was advising Labour on education. It concerned a Martian returning to the Earth 100 years after his previous visit. 

He was taken to a hospital and saw massives changes and advances. He took a ride through London and saw the fantastic changes in our traffic system. He then visited a school and at last found something that he recognised. Nothing much had changed: children were still sitting in rows behind desks.

Well, change is coming now and – if the pace of change is as quick as some of the predictions made at the conference last week – it will be a case of saying to the Martian: It's a school, Jim, but not as you knew it.

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years, and previously news editor of Tes. He has been writing about education for more than three decades

To read more columns by Richard, view his back catalogue

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