'Ed tech opens up amazing opportunities – but it will never replace a great teacher'

If used to empower both teachers and pupils, augmented reality and computer vision can revolutionise learning for millions, writes one technology expert

Ambarish Mitra

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If a teacher from the Victorian age, with their academic gown and mortarboard, were able to step into the classroom of 2018, they would find some things familiar. Though teaching methods are nothing like they were 150 years ago, they might still stand in roughly the same position at the front of a class. They would perhaps scribble on a whiteboard rather than a blackboard, but the teacher would be able to immediately recognise where they were.  Compare that situation to a Victorian doctor, who would be utterly bewildered if they time-travelled to a high-tech modern hospital with its bleeping scanners, heart monitors and ventilators.  

For, despite the hype, technology has so far failed to truly revolutionise the classroom. There has been messianic talk about the impact of technology in education over the past few decades, but it is sometimes just a bolt-on to the curriculum; a shift that some argue has so far only changed learning outcomes at the margins. The pace at which technology is becoming obsolete is also a concern for schools that purchase new devices on stretched budgets.

However, recent leaps forward in the science of augmented reality (AR) and computer vision (CV), which is the field of artificial intelligence that trains camera lenses to recognise and understand the world they see, could change this scenario. This technology can play a potentially important role in enriching the education journey of pupils from pre-school to university and beyond in workplace and vocational training. AR and CV can make the difference because together they enable users to interact with real-world objects rather than the thin and passive experience of simply looking at a computer screen. Imagine if a child could point their smartphone at a random object, and it told them as well as showed them its name, its history and how it works. 

Biology students could, for instance, point their phone at an apple to learn how fruit trees protect their seeds for reproduction or they could point it at a Renaissance masterpiece – to see a full explanation of the symbolism of each aspect of the painting. Medical students could see a full AR anatomy animation in real time by pointing at, for example, a knee joint. Science students could discover the planets in their textbooks as they orbit around them. Once AR and CV technologies are combined with voice recognition, anyone could point their device at any object, ask a question, and get an immediate answer. 

Why will this "visual search engine" make such a difference? Because AR will create a more vivid and powerful learning experience than just relying on listening to a lecture, reading a textbook or searching for a fact online. It’s well known that many of us find concepts easier to grasp when they are presented visually. Studies have shown that combining visual and verbal methods of learning can improve working memory. This is something we instinctively know: for generations of teachers have been teaching fractions in early-years mathematics with apple pie diagrams.

An ed tech revolution in the developing world

AR and CV learning also allows us to experience the wonder of discovering information for ourselves. If we are curious about an unknown beautiful plant or a historic building when we are on a journey, our busy lives mean that we don’t take the time to learn about it afterwards. However, with this technology, we will be able to learn what it is in a matter of seconds – allowing us to constantly stock our minds as we move through life.

As well as being culturally enriching, the capacity to self-teach will become ever more important in the years ahead, when success in the jobs market will depend on our ability to learn new information quickly, particularly given the pace of technological change. Self-teaching is also effective. We are more likely to remember information that we have sought out than information presented to us passively.

But perhaps the most impactful use of AR and CV in education could be in the developing world. Currently, over 750 million people worldwide cannot read. These technologies will allow people – young and old –  to "visually" search the internet even if they are not literate. When combined with voice recognition, this will allow those who can’t read well to teach themselves by pointing their phone camera at objects of interest and asking it questions.

For example, an illiterate person could point their phone at a butterfly and ask where it came from and they would hear the answer as well as watch an animation of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. This is a revolution that could empower millions. In the past, acquiring any knowledge required a certain basic level of literacy – even to search for the simplest information on the internet. For the first time, these technologies provide a way for even the totally illiterate to search for and receive new knowledge. 

We are only just starting to realise the power of AR and CV technologies. However, we should not fall into a techno-utopianism that understates the practical obstacles to its widespread adoption. No AI device can work effectively in large parts of the developing world that still face an unreliable internet and electricity supply.

Despite the huge spread of smartphones around the world, they remain expensive for the poorest education systems in the world. And the greatest mistake is to assume that somehow technology can replace the role of a great teacher, particularly in the developing world where there is a shortage of well-trained teachers. Whatever inventions are on the horizon, the human connection between the teacher and their pupils – that allows them to educate, inspire and nurture curiosity – is not something that machines will ever be able to render obsolete. Technology’s role is to empower both teachers and students.

Ambarish Mitra is CEO and co-founder of Blippar

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Ambarish Mitra

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