How soon until the robots take over your classroom?

10th February 2017 at 00:00
Automated teaching is fast becoming a reality – but we’ll still need some human staff, say experts

Could a hologram take your class? Robots, algorithms and automation are set to replace millions of jobs in the future, and teachers are unlikely to be immune.

Today’s squeezed budgets means that anything that can cut costs is more likely to be embraced by schools. And the technology that could eventually make some teachers redundant is already attracting interest from ministers and academy chains.

TES has learned that the Department for Education has asked about a controversial model that has used technology to cut school costs in the developing world.

Meanwhile, the Ark academy chain is looking at a technology-based “blended learning” approach – though it has insisted that its motivation is no longer saving money.

Another possibility for schools is the use of “humagrams” – interactive, hologram-like versions of real teachers could be “holoported” into multiple classrooms simultaneously. These could be on the market by the end of the year.

Having secured the digital rights to bring murdered rapper Notorious B.I.G. back to the stage via hologram, Canadian firm ARHT is now moving into classroom learning.

‘If you ask any teacher whether teaching can be automated, 100 per cent will say “no”. If you ask whether certain parts of their jobs can be automated, 100 per cent will say “yes”.’

Its main target is China, where it anticipates teacher shortages as a result of population growth. But the company is also building a division in the UK and demonstrated the potential for schools at last month’s Bett education technology show in London.

“Of course, there’s a cost saving for schools,” said ARHT co-founder Rene Bharti. “[Currently] you have the same teachers teaching the same course in eight places. There’s no reason why you can’t cut that down to two or three and have one digital one who’s coming into class as well.”

Henry Warren, a consultant and former director of learning and innovation at global education company Pearson, said that the role of the teacher was set to go through “a very painful transition”.

“If you ask any teacher whether teaching can be automated, 100 per cent will say ‘no’,” he said. “If you ask whether certain parts of their jobs can be automated, 100 per cent will say ‘yes’. The question is which of these skills are going to be automated.”

He told TES the changes would be led by developing countries, where he says population growth will render today’s teacher-centric education model unviable. But Mr Warren argued that human teachers will still be needed in areas where computers struggle, such as empathy and motivation.

Human vs machine

Andreas Schleicher, education director at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), agreed and argued that automation could boost the profession.

“The teacher who reads from a script – that’s the function that’s going to get automated because soon you’re going to get computers that do that better and more effectively. That’s the teacher I would worry about,” the official behind the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings told TES.

“But the teacher who cares for students, who builds a strong relationship, who speaks with the parents and builds that instructional core – that teacher will have an even better job in the future.”

Some American charter schools have already used blended learning to change the role of the teacher, freeing them up to work with specific groups of pupils while other students are taught through computer software packages.

Ark had intended to use this approach in its proposed Pioneer Academy in Barnet, North London – though a planning application to build the school was thrown out by local councillors last month.

When TES first revealed Ark’s plans in 2014, documents from the trust showed that it was interested in the potential for smaller teaching groups but also wanted to “improve cost efficiency through both staffing and school design efficiencies”.

Ark’s chief information officer, Richard Martin, however, has now said that “the business case for [such an approach] would definitely not be to save money”.

He admitted that he had no solid evidence that blended learning worked, and said that Ark would not introduce it in a “big bang”.

Sam Morris, global education specialist at technology company Lenovo, said that caution was essential and warned that blended learning could either help pupils or save money – but not both. “It’s a slippery slope,” he said. “If you are really investing in blended learning as a means to help [pupils] then I think that will not likely lead to cost savings.

“You can choose one or the other, but you cannot expect the two to converge.”

@geomr 

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