Could AI change the way we teach?

Artificial intelligence (AI) brings the potential for teaching to be enhanced and tailored to the needs of the individual student – but while it certainly has a place, it won’t be taking over from real-life lecturers completely for some time yet, says Amiee Gallagher, Education Business Development Executive at SCC. At the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) conference in November 2019, Max Tegmark, co-founder of Future of Life Institute and professor of physics and AI research at MIT, said: “Artificial intelligence can make education more accessible and personalised.” But he also warned that AI has the potential to one day replace teachers. “I am optimistic about the potential of AI, but we really have to work for it.” The prospect of using AI to enhance teaching and learning is being talked about a lot right now. But there is probably as much scepticism as positive optimism that AI could be used at some point in the future to replace teachers and lecturers is not in any real doubt, but that also begs the question of whether it should be used. Distant prospect It is a distant prospect and the ethical issue really needs to be addressed separately. The acid test perhaps, will be whether or not AI delivers better results. But we are nowhere near the point at which that can be tested. That does not mean AI can’t play a role in the more immediate future – it most certainly can. And if it’s used wisely – and we ‘work at it’, as Max Tegmark noted, it can be used very effectively to enhance teaching and learning. AI gives us the opportunity to tailor learning for the individual student and to amass a wealth of data and knowledge, which we can then be analysed and refined, so that teaching gets better and better. But even doing this requires quite a lot of upheaval and changes to the way that tutors and students interact. It needs to be considered and planned carefully. Imperfect understanding It’s easy to get carried away and imagine that AI can do all sorts of things now – and while there are some truly amazing systems out there, we need to keep our feet firmly on the ground with respect to AI and machine learning and what it’s capable of delivering in education at the moment. As a recent article in Forbes magazine noted, it is very easy to easy to attribute human characteristics to AI. We already use voice recognition technologies, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, for example, as if we were talking to another human being – even though we also understand perfectly well that these systems won’t respond in the same way as a real person. It may sound like a human voice and react in a similar way – but it is not the same. At the present time, AI can only go so far. The intelligence is still understood to be “artificial” and for this reason, AI-driven learning systems will be used much more as aides and supplements to teaching and lecturing rather than a replacement for the tutors themselves. AI is already being used by some HE establishments to drive chatbots that are able to answer common questions on complex subjects, and there is plenty of research being done into how AI can be used to enhance and enrich education. Nothing like the real thing In the short-to-medium term it is probably going to be most useful in providing answers to frequently-asked questions, and to providing more information on how well students are responding to tuition and progressing with their courses. There are very practical and affordable ways in which AI can be put to use in universities and colleges today – and every HE institution should be looking at the potential. But it will be quite some time before AI can play a much bigger role and we are certainly some way off seeing the artificial form of intelligence displacing replacing the real thing.
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