Robots in the classroom? Separating truth from science fiction

Posted on 18th March 2019

Posted by Priya Lakhani OBE

CENTURY Tech Founder CEO Priya Lakhani OBE outlines how artificial intelligence can improve educational outcomes – and dispels some myths regarding robots taking over the classroom.

As schools increasingly turn to technology and artificial intelligence to improve outcomes, the ‘R’ word is starting to creep into educational debates. Robots, the scaremongerers insist, are on the brink of taking over our schools, with double Maths just months away from being led by the Decepticons, while parents’ evenings will soon resemble a scene from the Terminator.

But what truth lies behind the predictions of the imminent robotisation of education? A robot is simply a machine that automatically completes complex tasks often traditionally performed by humans. They do this by combining artificial intelligence with large amounts of data. This is no nebulous academic concept – all of us use robots every single day, from online shopping to using Google to our Netflix recommendations.

There is no serious desire to replace human teachers

No parent – me included – would want to send their children to a school run by C-3PO, his linguistic wizardry aside, and there is no serious desire to replace human teachers, whose brilliance, empathy and understanding could never be even closely matched by an android. The human connection between pupil and teacher is irreplaceable, a view shared by governments, technologists, schools, parents and children alike.

There is, however, a real benefit for schools to reap from using artificial intelligence to automate and improve some of less human-dependent tasks in teaching, freeing up the teacher’s time to focus on actually teaching and nurturing their students. That is why I started CENTURY Tech – to apply the latest developments in AI, neuroscience and learning science to a teaching and learning platform that helps both teachers and pupils to be more efficient in the classroom.

As students use CENTURY to learn via micro-lessons called ‘nuggets’ and answer questions, the system tracks each user’s strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences. The AI knows if you’re guessing, hesitating or skipping, giving the teacher greater insights into how their students are performing and allowing them to intervene with precision.

AI immediately identifies individual strengths and weaknesses to the teacher

One of the toughest processes a teacher faces is learning the strengths and weakness of a new class – an exercise that can take months. With CENTURY, students take a diagnostic test, and each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses are immediately identified to the teacher. Throughout the year, teachers can monitor how each child is doing throughout the curriculum – not just their performance, but how they are approaching their learning. The teacher can, for example, tell a student that they struggled with algebra because they spent only a minute learning the content, missed a few questions and put minimal effort into answering questions and revision.

A number of edtech companies claim to be using artificial intelligence in their products – but in reality are using traditional rules-based technologies. This means their programmes give students tailored learning paths based on their previous actions, but the system is not actually doing any learning itself, and will never be able to move past what it has been explicitly programmed to do. True artificially-intelligent learning platforms like CENTURY learn for themselves what the best route through the content is for a specific student in a specific moment. Much like the best teachers, insights are constantly improving and adapting, creating a significantly better learning environment for students. A truly artificial intelligence-led education finally allows us to move from ‘one size fits all’ to ‘one size fits one’.

Freeing up teachers’ time to focus on improving outcomes

So does this technology actually work? We explored this with the help of UCL, who ran a study with thousands of pupils using CENTURY. They found that when using the platform, students improved their understanding of topics by almost a third on average. It also found that CENTURY reduced the gap between low and high attaining students, levelling the playing field for all learners. Perhaps most importantly of all, the study found that pupil premium students performed just as well as their peers. Moreover, it showed that CENTURY saves teachers on average six hours a week of workload, further freeing up their time to focus on improving outcomes.

The one-size-fits-all model of education has failed, and sadly, continues to fail children across the world. Fatigued teachers are struggling with their workload, while low standards persist in many communities. While there is no appetite for or benefit from replacing teachers, the evidence strongly suggests that they can benefit greatly from adopting artificial intelligence technologies to automate tasks like marking and planning, to better and more quickly identify strengths and weaknesses in pupils, and provide an education tailored to each individual child. Schools across the world are rapidly discovering that far from replacing teachers, artificial intelligence can augment them, allowing them to focus on teaching, inspiring and nurturing their students.

This blog was originally published by COBIS.