KYRAN FITZGERALD: Is teaching facing artificial intelligence Armageddon?

Anthony Seldon

Anthony Seldon is one of Britain’s leading educationalists and social commentators. He has served as a close adviser to former leaders, including Tony Blair and David Cameron. In recent years, he has turned his attention to the ongoing impact of new technologies, in particular, artificial intelligence (AI), on education and on society, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.

With Oladimeji Abidoye, Mr Seldon recently published The Fourth Education Revolution: Will Artificial intelligence Liberate or Infantilise Humanity?

He does not pull his punches, warning that we may be “sleepwalking into the biggest potential disaster of modern times”.

Despite these tides of change, the education sector has been slow to respond. Indeed, if anything, the current focus on training people for today’s jobs could backfire, he believes.

He cites the Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, David Deming, as “arguing convincingly that the very skills prioritised by linear thinking schools and universities are precisely the ones that algorithms are able to perform much more quickly, profoundly and reliably”.

The Irish education system over the past 40 years has succeeded in producing waves of competent middle managers and technicians, many of whom have been employed in the foreign-owned plants and in supporting professional firms which have grown up around them.

But business may have very different requirements in the future.

The educational reformer and former UK minister Kenneth Baker argues that primary schools must start to teach coding. However, few teachers have experience of coding. In Ireland, coding is now taught to secondary school pupils, typically by private groups during school holidays.

Mr Baker, provocatively, suggests that foreign language teaching should be replaced by computer language studies.

Mr Seldon argues that “school teachers will effectively become little more than classroom assistants on hand to set up equipment, help children and maintain discipline”.

Academic Adam Gordon argues for a wider debate: policymakers need to take account of the likely cost of automation, the availability of people skilled in AI, the possible benefits beyond saving on labour costs, and issues of regulation, data protection, and social acceptance. AI is already used in the US to monitor student performance.

Some cold water has been poured on predictions of tech-Armageddon by professor Aldwyn Cooper. He insists that humans will continue to have the edge over machines in the world of teaching.

He disagrees with the idea that we are facing into the “greatest revolution in education since the printing press”. While third-level institutions rush to develop new technologies, Mr Cooper looks at the experience of innovators. In the 1960s, the Plato system sought to change the role of teachers. In 1967, the Computer Curriculum Corporation was established in Stanford University. The Open University pioneered computer-based learning in the 1970s.

“All these systems failed to note the social aspects of learning and the ways in which learner-isolation creates a breakdown of social norms,” says Mr Cooper. Teaching is still about the imparting of social skills, teamwork, and cultural experiences.

However, Mr Cooper does accept that AI could play an important part in removing much drudgery from teaching through the use of algorithms that monitor student progress and mark exams.

The danger is that the systems will be available at a huge price, effectively corralling resources which could be available for other purposes.

Professor Rose Luckin of University College London believes that AI can be used to foster collaboration among students.

It is best viewed as an “extra pair of hands”, she says. In secondary schools, it can be used to decrease paperwork and exam correcting that can add to teacher burnout.


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