How can AI improve education systems?
When most people think of their education, the images that come to mind are teachers writing on chalkboards and textbooks that have passed through hundreds of children’s hands.
For some of us, the heights of technology during our education were an old desktop PC whose word processor included an animated paperclip telling you to save your work. For the students of today and the future, however, this is not the case. “Artificial Intelligence,” or AI, promises to upend and improve how students learn.
AI in education or “Edtech” is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, and its influence is felt in the classroom even now. But firstly, it is essential to define what exactly AI is. Rather than one prescribed form of technology, it is an umbrella term encompassing many different things.
One of the first definitions comes from pioneers in computer science, John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky, who first coined the term as a task carried out by a machine that ordinarily requires human intelligence. According to this interpretation, the definition has moved on from this nowadays; more or less someone can deem anything electronic as AI. Nowadays, we think of it more as autonomously operating technology that displays elements of intelligent human behavior in its ability to plan, calculate, solve, and adjust.
Whether we are aware of it or not, AI already affects our daily lives enormously. From what posts we see on social media, which products are recommended to us on Amazon, to how Google Maps calibrates the quickest way home. AI is total and ubiquitous. Its guiding principle is to iron out inefficiencies in how humans organize and live our daily lives.
In the education domain, which outdated principles still guide even today: namely, the teacher stands in front of the class, writes on the wall, students memorize content, teacher marks homework, and so on. Although many will argue this method has served us well for centuries, what’s not to say that technology can’t vastly improve both quality and access to education?
Before discussing how AI is and will revolutionize education systems, it is vital to identify why its application is necessary in the first place. Education is a sector and institution rife with inefficiencies, which is especially prevalent in the United States. On average, students spend 1,010 hours in class per year — almost 140 less than Japan, whose students vastly outperform American children in STEM subjects. The additional problem is that usually, one teacher will preside over 30 students or more during a class, with several of them a day, creating a challenge in delivering personalized feedback.
Therefore, the quality of time spent in the classroom is a crucial area that needs to be addressed, where AI comes in.
One major area in which AI is making waves is through personalized learning. Apps can use machine learning to continually test students and adapt what content they are tested on depending on their strengths and weaknesses. Carnegie Learning — formerly a publisher of traditional school textbooks — has created revolutionary math-learning software MATHia with LiveLab, which uses this method. According to Forbes magazine, MATHia adjusts
“learning based on an individual student’s particular needs has been a priority for educators for years, but AI will allow a level of differentiation that’s impossible for teachers who have to manage 30 students in each class.”
The critical point is a technology like MATHia, is not intended to replace teachers but rather identify ways in which somebody can improve all round. Nikki Baker, a teacher in an American high school stated,
“before LiveLab, I used to stand at the back of the room and try to look for when students were getting stuck. Now I know not only when they’re getting stuck, but why.”
AI-based adaptive learning technology can help language learners immensely . Lingvist is a foreign language vocabulary learning platform that leverages machine learning to expand users’ vocabulary by systematically testing their knowledge of words in their target language and adapting accordingly. AI’s potential to provide individualized and differentiated learning is vast, and through a widespread application, could indeed address inefficiencies in classrooms today.
Education for All
Another area that promises exciting future growth through improving access to education. In the age of coronavirus, with increasing numbers of students learning from home, many children in the developing world have to make long journeys to get to school, which will become increasingly important.
Indeed, AI offers the opportunity for global classrooms. What if a student in China, another in Ghana, and one in France were all watching a presentation by a teacher instructing in Spanish, and all understood? Impossible right? With Presentation Translator, a free PowerPoint plug-in by Microsoft, this dream has become a reality.
The application automatically subtitles speech and then allows translation into over 30 languages. This is also a gamechanger for deaf and hard-of-hearing students who have traditionally struggled to access quality education.
AI is chipping away at long-standing barriers to education.
Voice Assistants: Beyond Alexa
We are all familiar with voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and the Google Assistant. But these tools are now making their way into the classroom. Voice assistants utilize AI through cloud computing. The potential for voice assistants in early education is endless and is currently applied to assist students’ spelling and multiplication.
Especially amongst younger students, this has a twin effect of aiding engagement; youths are increasingly exposed to and enthusiastic about technology. This new technology will surely attract and retain students’ attention more than traditional instruction methods.
Voice assistants, besides, aid teachers’ management of their classrooms. Reminders, timers, and issuance of instructions are far quicker through voice AI technology than manually accessing software. Taking advantage of such AI will not damage school budgets either; for just $50, a voice assistant device can be placed in the classroom for all students to access. Ultimately, this leveraging of technology will vastly assist educators in increasing their workflow.
AI Allows Teachers to Teach
Any teacher is begrudgingly aware that almost half of their time is not spent educating students but carrying out administrative work. Educators are inundated with permanent marking and back-office work.
AI systems are increasingly utilized in freeing up educators’ time, allowing them to spend more time teaching. Automated grading is a growing sub-sector within Edtech. These tools use machine learning to absorb and apply new information and increase accuracy and fairness in grading students’ work. Furthermore, they have the potential to eliminate grading bias.
On the other hand, many have argued that AI-grading is rife with controversy. During 2020, students around the world were unable to attend exams. Many countries’ exam boards, therefore, utilized AI-grading in predicting the results students would have received. The AI-generated works, however, displayed wide discrepancies in comparison to teachers’ previous predicted grades.
But treading with caution is the appropriate approach when dealing with any new technology. Perfect technology is not created overnight. Teachers and students need to work with Edtech innovators so that technologies are increasingly improved.
AI is viewed by many as a brave new world — the domain of science fiction. Throughout all of human history, people have viewed new technologies with trepidation. (For many years in the nineteenth century, British textile workers destroyed machines as a form of protest.) But the long-term benefits of AI, and Edtech in particular, are undeniable. Its potential needs to be embraced with enthusiasm.
Education is the gift to the next generation, and AI promises to make this gift exponentially more valuable.