'We can't let education fall victim to edtech'

Technology has potential to enhance education - it must not replace the human element of teaching, says Kester Brewin

In education, we must explore how technology can help us - but we must never allow it to become our master, says Kester Brewin

Some two decades ago, I went for a job and, when asked if I needed any special equipment for my interview lesson, I asked if I might have an overhead projector and a whiteboard to use. The head of department’s jaw dropped so far, it was as if I’d asked for a full-sized working model of the Large Hadron Collider.

That projector is now probably living out a comfortable retirement in the lounge of a hipster flat somewhere in East London; a piece of vintage technology employed as nostalgia. The question is, fast-forward a further 20 years, and will all of us teachers have been similarly replaced — and looked after so tenderly in our retirement?

If you believe The Independent, within 10 years teachers will become little more than classroom assistants because, as they reported Anthony Seldon putting it in a recent speech, “the essential job of instilling knowledge into young minds will wholly be done by artificially intelligent (AI) computers.” However, counter to this, The Telegraph reports a study by Oxford University that predicts that there is only a 0.8 per cent chance that secondary school teachers’ jobs are at risk from "computerisation" — though this rises to a whopping 56 per cent for classroom assistants.

Who to trust? With so much uncertainty about what the future holds, as Bett Show comes around again, perhaps more than ever we need to ask what technology is doing to education rather than for it. Should we be wary or welcoming of the extraordinarily powerful new digital tools that are beginning to come online?

The power of edtech

What is clear – as recently reported on Tes – is that the education sector may not be as well prepared as it should be for the challenges and opportunities that it is going to face. Priya Lakhani, the founder of edtech company Century Tech, bluntly told a committee of MPs that “the government does not understand artificial intelligence in education”, and that the impact of AI "microcredentialing" software could spell the end for high-stakes assessments such as GCSEs and A levels.

The temptation is to scoff, to claim that this is ridiculous. But other sectors would warn us not to be so quick to feel secure; assuming that we are insulated from the winds of radical digital disruption would be foolish. Newspapers, booksellers and high-street retailers have all had their once-solid industries utterly transformed. So, against complacency, what might we learn from what has happened to them?

Firstly, new technologies — whether new smart boards or ancient slates — always arrive promising to deliver on cost, on convenience or on efficiency. High-street shops have gone to the wall because people found that they could get hold of what retailers were offering more cheaply and conveniently without having to leave their desks, without having to travel to a hulking great mass of bricks and mortar that is expensive to heat, staff and maintain. Sound familiar?

In an increasingly devolved and individualised society, schools might soon be seen as an expensive way of acquiring knowledge that can be delivered more cheaply another way. With workload an acute problem, why not improve efficiency by setting work online that is marked by an artificially intelligent system?

Companies like Century Tech ("You Do the Teaching, We Do the Marking") claim reductions in teacher workload by six hours a week, while improving student outcomes by 30 per cent. These efficiency gains are coupled with convenience, too: using online systems can be a very easy way to access huge numbers of revision resources, for example.

We absolutely should welcome these innovations. But in doing so, should we not also be cautious, questioning what these shifts are doing to the kind of education we are offering, rather than for the kind of education that we feel is right?

The initial promise that technology made to the media and retail sectors was that the changes they facilitated would be enhancements. Yet, having offered to strengthen the body, they have almost completely consumed it. Tiny disruptors in a sector went viral, killing their host and replacing it with a small number of super-powerful, super-rich companies.

Would it be too much of a stretch to warn that schools are now adopting advanced digital tools that might eventually run them out of business?

All technologies function to amplify what actions we can take in the world. I cannot bang in nails with my bare hands, but the hammer I grasp reaches back through my arm into my heart and asks of me: what do you want to do with this extra power?

With new digital tools this level of amplification has increased exponentially – just look at the profound effect on our politics that the Cambridge Analytica data scandal has had. With these increased powers on offer, it is more vital than ever that we proceed carefully, interrogating our tools to see if they are going to serve our best desires, rather than trick us into creating a world that we don’t want: desolate high streets or a democracy at risk from foreign click-bait.

Most importantly, the efficiencies that digital tools offer are often about the removal of the body: humans are expensive; AI’s don’t need lunchbreaks or sick pay. And this is the most profound question that we must face: what are we educating for? Hi-tech education platforms are very good at individualised learning, but what about group collaboration, argument and discourse? Teachers are bodies in the room because education is ultimately about becoming more human, about empathy, about relationships, about something physical rather than virtual, about the whole body, not just the enlarged mind.

Interestingly, this "return to the body" is what we are slowly seeing return in the aftermath of the digital revolution. Independent bookshops are springing up again. People are looking for the authentic, for craft beers and artisan furnishings, things that have the touch of the human all over them. Yet the danger here is that these things are only open to those who can afford them; only the rich can have what is "real".

We cannot be anti-tech. To make tools is part of what it is to be human. But the greater part is to be reflective users of these tools, and we must be clear that not all that is possible is desirable. If we hold education – as opposed to sterile knowledge acquisition – dear, then we must fight hard against the increasing march of "screenification", and speak up clearly for the vital place of the body in schools for all, regardless of wealth, before school bodies themselves become a thing of the past.

Kester Brewin teaches maths in south-east London. While working as a teacher, he has been a consultant for BBC Education, and is the author of a number of books on culture and religion. He tweets @kesterbrewin

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