Reimagining AI in the classroom

Tony Wheeler

Tony Wheeler is head of innovation at UK edtech firm Digital Assess, and is responsible for the original design of many of the Digital Assess systems. As a former teacher, he co-founded TAG Developments in 1990. Tony recently coordinated a trial to help educational institutions realise the benefits of AI in the classroom through FormativeAssess, a web application developed by Digital Assess. The app, which uses machine learning to simulate the role of an expert mentor, aims to scale good teaching practice by engaging in conversations with students during early stage project work. The focus is on nurturing the creative process and encouraging a deeper level engagement. Digital Assess is now planning to introduce this technology to more learners across the UK.

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to revolutionise learning and enrich the classroom environment in a way that most teachers probably aren’t aware of. Whilst the technology itself isn’t new to education, it is yet to be utilised to its full potential. Too often, AI is perceived to be disruptive, or is employed to produce a specific outcome – better exam results being the obvious example. Teachers need to recognise that, actually, AI can slot effortlessly into normal teaching practice, and it can provide immeasurable benefits that go much further than simply ticking boxes.

One major problem with many AI tools is that they don’t naturally lend themselves to the classroom environment. Instead of falling “The teacher should always remain at the centre of learning.”into the existing teaching routine, the technology operates independently. For example, AI that tests pupils on their current knowledge, or helps them to retain information, requires no teacher involvement. As such, many teachers no doubt feel almost redundant for that part of the lesson, as they temporarily take a step back from the learning process. When the AI forges no link with the teacher, the entire pedagogic experience is disjointed.


Within the classroom, the teacher should always remain at the centre of learning, and the technology should only seek to support and enhance that. AI should build on good practice and aid the teacher by, for example, freeing up time for them to have more strategic conversations with pupils. In this sense, ‘augmented intelligence’ is a better description of the process than ‘artificial intelligence’ – and this is how it should be regarded by teachers.


With that in mind, what should teachers be looking for in AI tools? As a more sophisticated model of technology, AI that incorporates machine learning can add a richness to the student relationship with the teacher. By engaging with students in the early stages of their work, and asking questions of their thought processes, it allows them to approach the teacher having already fully thought through their ideas. This means that maximum benefit is obtained from the teacher interaction. Engagement with technology and with the teacher is therefore one harmonious process.


As well as facilitating more effective use of teacher time, machine learning provides many other benefits for both teachers and students alike. “The true value of AI lies in its ability to enhance existing teaching practice.”It can assist with more abstract, less tangible targets that are harder to achieve. Struggling to secure student engagement? Machine learning can help with this, through asking open questions and leading pupils to reflect upon their work more deeply, thereby avoiding a mere superficial engagement. It also acts as a creative tool, by sparking imagination and encouraging students to think about different outcomes and eventualities. Technology students, for example, might be asked how their design would operate underwater.


It is for these reasons that teachers should incorporate machine learning technology into their classrooms, and in doing so, realise that the true value of AI lies in its ability to enhance existing teaching practice. In edtech, machine learning can take into account more closely the needs and objectives of the teacher. Educators should embrace this, and seek to be actively involved in technology development from the start, by partnering up with edtech firms. In this way, they can help to explore and develop a more appropriate product that really works for them.


Currently, the role of AI in the classroom is quite limited. It has the potential to be far more meaningful and intrinsic to the learning process than the means in which it is typically employed, and this should be brought to the attention of teachers nationwide. They should be asking ‘can this technology develop student thinking and generate greater engagement?’, and ‘will this make my contact time with pupils more effective and mutually beneficial?’, instead of whether it can bring hard results. When the role of AI is framed in this logic, teachers can be assured that they are obtaining true value from it.


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