‘Let the robots do teachers’ heavy lifting’

11th May 2018 at 00:00
AI has the potential to cut teachers’ admin, freeing them up to focus on improving learning, say experts

An early trial of artificial intelligence in schools suggests that it could save teachers nearly a day a week. So could technology offer a solution to teacher workload where others have failed?

Damian Hinds clearly thinks so, having suggested that AI would “ease” teachers’ burden in his first speech as education secretary (see bit.ly/TechHinds)

Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton takes a similar view. He argues that teaching needs to ensure that it doesn’t “become the Luddite profession”. Instead, he says, it should explore “how technology and artificial intelligence can take some of the routine activities from teachers’ lives, providing more nuanced assessment feedback, freeing teachers to work directly with their classes of young people”.

“It kind of frees teachers up a bit more to be teachers, and human beings,” Barton says. “There’s something really powerful about that. What it’s not saying is that teachers become less important; it’s making teachers more important because it’s taking some of the heavy lifting out of pedagogy.”

He is in particularly interested in the potential of one AI package being trialled in schools, which early research suggests could cut a teacher’s workload by nearly a day a week.

Social enterprise Century Tech brought together machine learning – a form of AI – and neuroscience to design a personalised learning, cross-curricular programme for pupils. It aims to both stretch some pupils further than the curriculum and plug gaps in knowledge for others. The first impact data from an 18-month trial that involved 25 schools showed better results across the board, notably for children on a pupil premium and those with special educational needs, who improved at the same rate as other pupils.

Saving time on marking

It also showed benefits for teachers, who found more time to spend on the more rewarding aspects of their jobs, according to a survey of staff involved in the trial. Staff reported that it saved them up to six hours each week in micro-marking, assessing and planning.

The instant information that teachers can draw about their pupils’ progress from the AI tool allowed them to spend more time on ensuring that the next week’s lessons were more targeted to their pupils’ needs, according to around 80 staff who responded.

AI refers to technologies that can perform tasks at least as well as humans. Many will already be familiar with the Siri voiceactivated personal assistant that can reply to questions or the way that recommendation engines can predict what we will want to watch on Netflix.

Century uses machine learning, a sophisticated form of AI that draws on the design of neurons in the human brain, to allow the technology to form connections and detect patterns in the way an individual learns.

Founder and chief executive Priya Lakhani says: “Teachers spend 60 per cent of their time on admin. No teacher signed up for that.

“They became teachers to impart knowledge, inspire young people and be passionate about their subject. My job is to automate the unnecessary tasks that teachers do.”

But resistance to AI in the classroom has been expressed by pupils. A poll of around 500 16- to 18-year-olds in state and independent schools found that many felt it would deny them human contact and inspiration, and provide them with less attention and emotional support (bit.ly/TeachRobot).

Lakhani says machine learning should not supplant the valuable job that a teacher does, but complement it by doing some of the routine tasks.

Professor Rose Luckin, from the UCL Institute of Education, says the early results showing that children from disadvantaged backgrounds and SEND pupils improve as much as other pupils are encouraging.

“I am totally not in the school of beliefs that we should use this AI to replace teachers,” she says. “I think that would be entirely the wrong way to go, but I do believe we can use the AI to help teachers to be much more effective and actually to enjoy their jobs more.”

She warns that if AI does replace teachers, it risks creating an educational “apartheid”, with poor pupils deprived of human teachers while their better-off peers enjoy a more rounded schooling (bit.ly/TechApart).

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