Artificial intelligence – will smart computers replace teachers?

4th December 2016 1:00
By Blue Tutors

The age of intelligent machines is no longer reserved for science fiction, and many are predicting a radical shift in the jobs market as artificially intelligent computers take over many longstanding sectors of the economy. With this shift, professions like lawyers and accountants are question their place in this new economic ecosystem, but what will the effect be for education, one of the most labour intensive industries?

While many of the supporting roles in education, from librarians to bus drivers, are facing the imminent threat of being replaced by computers, teachers are being told that they are not being made redundant by technology just yet. Teaching does not have many components which naturally lend themselves to automation, only some 10-20% of teacher’s time according to a recent McKinsey report. Nevertheless, AI brings speed and low cost solutions that could substitute for teachers. Repetitive or administrative tasks like scheduling and lesson planning are obvious candidates for AI assistance, so intelligent computers could be used to reduce the amount of time teachers spend doing things like marking and searching or organising lesson content. Following progress, assigning targeted homework and delivering lesson content could all be done by AI computers, so why do we still need teachers?

Almost half of the work teachers do was found to involve analysing the complex interactions between people, including cultural context, a skill that computers have yet to master. Computers are becoming highly efficient listeners and are already used as sources of knowledge in the form of factual content, however they are not able to develop the social skills and emotional intelligence children need to learn at school, particularly at a young age.

If computers cannot entirely replace teachers, the value of AI in education might lie in the expansion of teaching to new frontiers. AI can be used in all kinds of environments and overcome language barriers, improving access to education. By increasing availability of flexible, low cost, high quality education, AI may replace the increasingly popular MOOCs (massive online open courses) and hopefully reduce inequality in global education. More than simply removing the need for overheads and strict scheduling, AI opens up the possibility of truly individualised teaching, as machines can themselves adapt to how a person learns best, personalising not only content but delivery to each student.

Teaching is one of the world’s oldest professions, having evolved significantly over the past millennia to our current system of compulsory classroom education for all. To date, every technological revolution has only increased access to learning, be it the invention of the word press or the internet. With increase access to resources and knowledge, far from becoming osculate, teaching has remained a vital profession. It appears to be inevitable for many of the roles that 20th century teachers fulfilled, and what is expected of education in our current society, to potentially be replaced by technological solutions that would be cheaper and possibly more effective. This, however, assumes that the role and content of education will remain is it is now. With the advent of AI, new jobs will be created and a different set of uniquely human skills will be valued over areas like memory or deductive reasoning. The role of teachers will certainly need to change to reflect this.

Although artificial intelligence will change what we learn and how we learn it, a computer cannot inspire, emotionally support or nurture creativity. In that way, despite inevitable change to our education system, goals and content, there will always be a place for good teaching. With automation of administrative tasks like attendance taking, grading and reporting, teachers may find their jobs becoming increasingly centred around one task: teaching.