Long read: the rise of the AI teaching assistant and the loss of teaching's heart

Lisa Jarmin went on a mission to discover the truth about the future role of artificial intelligence in education and what she found made her fear for the future of schools

Lisa Jarmin

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Every school has its technophobes. Usually to be found pointing in an accusatory fashion at their Smartboard (“it’s broken itself again”) or sighing wistfully in the IT suite (“there used to be Roger Red-hat books in this room as far as the eye could see”), they’re overwhelmed by the changes in technology in our schools and often mistrustful of it.

While I don’t quite fall into the fist-shaking, technology-hating camp, I do sometimes have misgivings.

My pupils love the reading and maths software that we use and I must admit that it holds their attention and they make great progress. However, like many teachers, I sometimes wonder whether the increased reliance on technology that children have at home and in school is good for them.

But while I’ve been fretting about screen time, a different sort of technology has crept into our classrooms. Artificial intelligence (AI) is in our schools, it’s here to stay and it’s evolving rapidly.

Importantly, it is likely to change education and our jobs beyond recognition within the next 10 years, and we need to understand how and why this will happen.

Artificial intelligence

AI is software that can perform tasks that usually require human intelligence, such as speech recognition, decision making and visual perception. Artificial neural networks are based on the human brain and use vast amounts of data to recognise, for example, an image, vocal instruction or pattern.

It’s been part of our everyday lives for a while now: as the automated response that uses your voice as a password when you phone the bank, or as advertisements for things that appear on your Facebook timeline and are based on your online history.

More recently, Alexa, the intelligent virtual personal assistant, has infiltrated homes worldwide and can play music, order your shopping or find out information for you, just from a vocal command.

It’s the stuff of the futuristic science fiction films that we watched as children.

Personally I’d have preferred a hoverboard, but we have AI, it’s revolutionising our lives on an unprecedented scale, and there’s no stopping it.

Slow on the uptake

Education has been slow to utilise AI, but in a basic form, it exists in various programs and apps that you might use with your pupils. Most of these programs assess a child’s level in a chosen subject, use this information to set work or questions, and automatically mark the answers.

At the simplest AI level, some of them (Reading Eggs, for example) will not allow a child to unlock the next level until they have demonstrated proficient ability in an end-of-level test.

Other, slightly more advanced, versions (such as Skoolbo) collect and analyse data from pupils’ answers, allowing a teacher to look at the information and identify any gaps in understanding or ability.

But what if I told you that this is only the tip of the AI revolution iceberg; that, within 10 years, the majority of learning will be done through artificially intelligent software; and that the career that you trained for will be unrecognisable?

The AI frontier

Simon Balderson is assistant headteacher at Wells Cathedral School in Somerset and organiser of AIConf – an international conference dedicated to artificial intelligence in education.

Balderson is adamant that these changes will happen and that teachers need to find a way to embrace them or they could find themselves unemployable in the radically different culture of the future.

“What we think of as a teacher’s role is going to evolve,” he explains. “At the moment, we deliver content and assess pupils but, as AI infiltrates classrooms, this will change. AI is developing so rapidly that, in the future, it will be able to detect, for example, the micro-expressions that pass across someone’s face when they are struggling to understand a concept, and will pick up on that and adapt a lesson to take account of it.”

It will adapt automatically the way a teacher does, but will be able to do this constantly, consistently and for every pupil, he says.

“No teacher can do that with 30 children per class. AI will also manage data for each pupil, ensuring that work is always pitched at exactly the right level for every student. Currently, that level of differentiation is impossible.”

If AI is going to assess our pupils, differentiate lessons for them and plan work and activities accordingly, what’s going to be left for us to do? Lesson delivery?

Apparently not.

“Whereas now each school has subject specialists, in the not-too-distant future, it will be possible for lessons to be delivered by the best teachers and most knowledgeable subject specialists in the world via AI technology,” says Balderson.

“We’ll be doing a far better job for our students: they’ll all have access to the greatest teachers in the world regardless of where they live or their socioeconomic group.”

I put this idea to a fellow teacher, then stood back and awaited the explosion.

“If I were one of the best teachers in the world and someone wanted me to deliver lessons to children all over the world via AI, as they thought it would give them the best possible experience, I would struggle to see how that was possible,” says Susannah Jeffries, a primary school teacher from Edinburgh.

“What makes learning memorable is shared experience, shared attention and human interaction.”

Well, quite. 

Balderson is quick to reassure that teachers will still have a significant role, but that our role will be mentors, helping to direct children in their learning rather than delivering lesson content.

He also says experiential learning will still play a huge role, especially in EYFS and primary education.

Do I believe all this will actually happen?

I’m not sure. But I have concerns if it does. To quote the renowned child psychiatrist James P. Comer, “no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship”.

Problems ahead...

In my experience, the teachers I learned best from were kind and empathic, taking an interest in their pupils and understanding what made each child tick emotionally as well as academically.

How many times have you adjusted your interaction with a child because you knew that their pet rabbit died that morning or that their parents were separating? While AI will be able to monitor a child for signs of emotional distress, an algorithm can’t possibly offer the innately human trait of empathy.

A paper by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child titled Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships addresses this need for interaction and empathy in detail. It states: “Children who develop warm, positive relationships with their kindergarten teachers are more excited about learning, more positive about coming to school, more confident and achieve more in the classroom.”

But you can’t develop a warm, positive relationship with a piece of software, however sophisticated it is, surely?

Actually, some of the research work around humanoid robots suggests that it is possible to feel something for a synthetic being (Wall-E, anyone?).



OK, so what about creative thought? Surely AI won’t be able to teach that?

“There is ongoing discussion about this,” says Balderson. “We need to decide what makes us uniquely human and is therefore inappropriate to be replicated.”

A question of ethics

While Balderson is optimistic about the changes that will take place, stating that it will empower us and our students, I was left questioning the ethics of this and panicking about robot teachers invading our schools and stealing our jobs. I needed some good news, so I spoke to Rose Luckin, professor of learner-centred design at University College London’s Knowledge Lab. Otherwise known as “the Doctor Who of AI”, she’s been developing and writing about artificial intelligence in education for more than 20 years.

So, is my vision of a dystopian future in which children spend every day sitting in rows, engaging only with a screen, correct?

Apparently not.

“Increased automation and artificial intelligence does not necessarily equate to an increased use of screens,” Luckin reassures me. “Devices such as, Alexa or Google Home are examples of voice interfaces in common use. There is every possibility that there will be a much wider range of interfaces for people to use in order to interact with their computing technology [in the future].”

So at least we don’t have to worry about churning out a conveyor belt of screen-addicted students.

But are our jobs going to be safe in this new world?

Luckin sets the record straight. Within 10 years, she says, all educators should have “an AI assistant that takes care of record keeping and marking”.

“AI assistants will be able to conduct detailed analyses of huge sets of data about each pupil so that teachers can provide carefully targeted mentoring to ensure all students fulfil their potential,” she says. They will be able to track each student “as they progress cognitively, metacognitively, physically and emotionally”.

Flexible working

OK, I’m sold on AI assistants. No more marking or record keeping? Count me in. But what else is in it for teachers?

“We should also be able to provide the technical infrastructure to enable educators to work in a more flexible manner,” says Luckin. “This kind of technology could support job sharing…and make flexible working practices more accessible to schools.”

This would be a welcome improvement, particularly for parents who work in the profession. But surely, if artificially intelligent software is doing much of our job for us, this could lead to redundancies on a massive scale?

Luckin thinks not.

“While I don’t think teachers will be automated out of their jobs, I do think their jobs will change enormously.

robot teacher

“We will need students to leave school with a very different skill set and we will need them to be able to work effectively in jobs that are augmented with artificial intelligence,” she says.

“Therefore, teachers are going to need to be able to educate their students in ways that will give them the skills and abilities.”

Both Luckin and Balderson are keen to impress on me the importance of lifelong learning in the future as people adapt their skills and knowledge to the artificially intelligent world. This need to keep learning means that educators will be in constant demand to help people do this.

A new future

So not all bad news for teachers, but it does appear that a radically different job market awaits us. While some of the benefits to staff seem clear, I can’t help wondering about the fall-out as vast numbers of teachers become disillusioned with the prospect of this new working life.

None of us went into teaching for the record keeping, but many of us did so because we love to interact with children and impart knowledge. If that is taken away from us, what’s left of our vocation? And do we have any say in this process anyway?

The more I think about it, the closer I get to asking Alexa to build me a bunker to hide in, ready for when the AI apocalypse hits. Luckin says the biggest challenge will be getting teachers like me not just on side but putting us in control of the AI development, too.

“The most important thing for us to do at the moment is to engage educators in deciding how AI is to be used in education,” she says. “They are the most important voice in this debate because they understand how to make education effective.

“At the moment, the large technology companies are dominating discussions, [putting them] in prime position to dominate decisions about how artificially intelligent technologies are integrated [into education].

“I do worry that educators will have so-called ‘solutions’ imposed upon them. If we do not address this issue and my worry becomes a reality, then I may well ask to join you in your bunker – I’ll bring some tinned food and a torch, too!”

I’ll pencil that in for 2027, then. Is it wrong to hope that the bunker will have wi-fi?

Lisa Jarmin is an early years teacher and freelance journalist

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