As the founder of a company that develops artificial intelligence (AI) learning technologies, for years I have been plagued by accusations of developing secret robots designed to replace teachers.
No serious-minded person, whether politician, educator, technologist, student or parent, actually desires the robotisation of our teaching workforce. But despite this, some commentators are seemingly convinced of the existence of secret underground laboratories in which Miss R2-D2 and Mr WALL-E, with elbow-patched tweed blazers covering their wiring, are being perfected for the upcoming takeover of our classrooms.
In fact, from my conversations with those who actually run schools, it seems that the only advanced automated devices that they want are better coffee machines for the staffroom.
If we had wanted to, the closure of schools would have been the perfect time to unleash our secret stash of iTeachers on the unsuspecting nation. Squadrons of AT-AT Walkers would currently be roaming from home to home shooting knowledge beams and skills rockets into learners’ brains. There’s no need to keep socially distant from a robot, so one-to-one teaching could be taking place in every home in the world.
Thankfully, schools and families across the world decided to instead use technology to enhance and extend what little human interaction could take place, not replace it. We are now using technology to improve as much as possible the human relationships between teachers and their students.
Coronavirus school closures: How edtech is helping teachers
It is too soon to tell the results of this great experiment, but we should be thankful that the disruption occurred now and not at a time when the extent of education technology was a dodgy interactive whiteboard. From AI learning platforms to video calling, technology has kept learning – and, vitally, a human-centred model of learning – flowing through unprecedented turmoil. Teachers have been able to learn which tools can aid their teaching, especially with many companies offering their tools for free. But, fundamentally, technology must now be seen as what it was always designed to be: an aid, not a replacement.
While tech has stepped up to the plate, let this be the end of the teacher replacement debate. The world’s home-schooling experiment should mean that the debate about whether AI will replace teachers will stop. Millions of families have now realised first-hand how teaching is more than transferring the contents of a textbook to a child.
Prior to this crisis, far too many parents thought that because they went to school they knew how to teach. We’re all guilty of this. It isn’t confined to education, either; thanks to Google and panic-inducing symptom checkers, GPs frequently deal with patients convinced of having complex ailments without ever having read a medical textbook. Thanks to a few YouTube videos on how to replace a broken toilet flush valve, I now stand with folded arms carefully observing the work of any skilled tradesmen called on for help, to their assumed annoyance. But with many of us having been forced to become teachers overnight, any doubters surely must agree that teaching is a profession to be revered.
To be entirely fair, many of us parents have performed quite a remarkable transformation from Mummy to Miss. Mums and dads everywhere ripped off their Clark Kent spectacles to become teaching superheroes overnight. Aided by technology, textbooks and the brilliant Joe Wicks, parents have risen to the challenge of keeping their young ones both happy and learning. But with this has come an unprecedented appreciation for the role teachers play.
Let us never again suggest that technology could replace teachers. Instead, let us value the role that good, proven technology can play in augmenting the vital human relationships that learning and human flourishing depend on. Some campaigners are calling for NHS staff to be awarded a collective George Cross for their heroic efforts during the coronavirus pandemic. Such formal recognition will likely evade teachers, but once we get through these difficult times, let’s never forget what we all learned about how indispensable our teachers are.
Priya Lakhani OBE is founder and CEO of Century Tech and sits on the government's AI Council