do Teachers Think About Classroom Robots?

Mentioning that AI robots will replace some of what teachers do for students sends a chill through the spine of many educators. How preposterous to entertain the notion that intelligent machines could somehow match human interactions. What could be more dangerous for our children and our democracy than integrating robots into the education system?

A recent survey conducted by Education Week found that the vast majority of teachers, 84 percent, disagreed with the suggestion that their student’s learning would improve if more elementary school teachers had robots assisting them in the classroom. For many of us as well, the thought that robots will eventually replace teachers is more than we can handle.

But, ready or not, robots are coming to the classroom. So what can we expect?

How Does AI Work?

Before tackling the thorny question of what to expect, we need first to understand AI and robots better. The simplest way to understand this is that AI (Artificial Intelligence) trains a machine (the robot) to perform the same tasks that simulate something the human brain can do.

At the moment, many types of AI, including educational software, are what is called “adaptive.” Adaptive means that AI is pre-programmed to take specific steps, based on whatever the user does. So when it comes to a student taking an adaptive test, if the answer is correct, the AI knows to give the student a more difficult question next.

These adaptive systems aren’t considered such a big deal anymore, and certainly aren’t grabbing the headlines. The reason is because all of the information is already pre-programmed into the system. The machine cannot improve its functioning at a particular task.

Cutting-edge AI technology involves systems that can learn and improve over time. The improvement is accomplished by analyzing tremendous quantities of data and seeking to find relationships and the emergence of new patterns. As the database increases, the machine becomes ever more accurate.

How Schools are Using AI

Some AI-powered tools are already being used in classrooms. These include smart speakers, like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant—as teaching tools. But more extensive use of increasingly sophisticated machines in the school, including speech therapy won’t be for a while, according to the experts.

At the same time, AI is already differentiating instruction for different kinds of learners in the form of what is known as smart tutors. As AI continues to develop, it’s projected that AI will be able to individualize lessons for children the same way that an extraordinary teacher does.

Another important application of AI that is already in practice is automated essay scoring, which has been linked to early warning systems. These early warning systems help to identify students who are having trouble and at risk of dropping out.

The ways that AI could reshape K-12 education boggle the imagination.

What are the Red Flags that Raise Concern?

AI and robots in the classroom are not without legitimate concerns.

Privacy of Data

The most obvious red flag concerns the confidentiality of data, especially for K-12 students. There is considerable fear that children will share their personal information with an artificially intelligent robot whom they have grown to trust either in the classroom or in speech therapy. Once that happens, there are no safeguards against the information reaching the hands of those who should not see it.

Bias and Decision Making

Furthermore, since, at this point anyway, human beings are programming AI-powered robots, human bias is a huge concern. After all, bias may not be so critical if the AI algorithm is predicting which suit the customer will buy next, but making judgments regarding students is an entirely different matter.

What if the AI is deciding whether a particular lesson is fitting for the student, or whether or not a student should advance to the next grade, or should apply to a specific college? Depending upon who wrote the algorithm and its axiomatic bias, the algorithm could be potentially life-altering for the student.

It is for this reason that AI systems designed for education should never become the ultimate decider for children’s learning nor the pathway of their education. While AI can serve as an essential supplemental tool, the educators who are human beings must remain indispensable as the most critical component of the equation.

The Impact on Human Interactions

But perhaps the most significant challenge that the “coming of the robots” presents concerns its capacity to compromise human interactions. Once students begin to feel more comfortable interacting with robots and AI machines instead of human beings, their willingness and ability to have meaningful relationships or even conversations with people will be impaired.

When we look closely at the phenomenon of texting or instant messaging, the roots of the problem are already apparent. It is so much simpler to send messages than to have face-to-face conversations. With AI and robots, meaningful human interaction may be sacrificed.

Welcoming the Inevitable and What It Means

Whether we like it or not, according to a report by Global Market Insights, the use of AI in the education sector is expected to explode to a worldwide market value of $6 billion over the next six years. K-12 applications for teaching and learning in the United States will account for nearly one-fifth of the growth.

Furthermore, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that, with the help of AI, forty percent of the tasks which elementary school teachers now perform could be automated by 2030. At the moment, these are mostly non-instructional job responsibilities, such as tracking student progress and communicating with parents.

The explosion of AI and robots in education could lead to a variety of outcomes. We can’t bury our heads in the sand, but rather need to assure that robots will be used to improve student learning and help teachers spend more time inspiring students, building strong relationships with them, and focusing on the priorities that matter most. After all, our children’s future could be at stake.