3 reasons why AI could be your new teaching sidekick

Graham Glass

A serial entrepreneur with a track record of innovation, Graham Glass is the CEO of CYPHER LEARNING. Graham has a strong passion and background in education and software, having taught Computer Science at the University of Texas in Dallas. His passion for education and innovation has led to the creation of learning platforms, whether this is for creating classes or courses, assessing students or employers, or facilitating collaboration, as well as tracking student achievement.

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Image credit: Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope // Lucasfilm Ltd. Image credit: Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope // Lucasfilm Ltd.

With artificial intelligence (AI) on the rise, educators have increasingly reflected on how this might impact teaching in the coming years, with some of the more scary predictions even suggesting that machines could one day replace teachers altogether. This fear is largely unfounded and an unhelpful way to think about AI and education; rather than posing a threat, when used correctly AI could actually be the very best sidekick for teachers in the classroom.

Could AI in the classroom really replace teachers?

The thought of a machine capable of learning with the potential to become smarter than us can often be a scary prospect, particularly because it challenges the common human belief that we are better and brighter than all other species on the planet. A number of recent headlines have fuelled these fears, such as Facebook’s decision to shut down its AI program last year after it invented its own language, or Stephen Hawking’s warning that if we get AI wrong it could kill us when it gets too clever.

Reservations around the phenomenon have also begun to feature in education debates, with some commentators now warning that AI could eventually make teachers entirely redundant as clever machines teach students how to read, write and pass exams. Yet these fears are very much exaggerated. As Bill Gates put it, “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.”

This is particularly true when we look at some of the learning resources and educational apps currently out there; teachers really are the mastermind behind these tools! For example, while iWriteWords teaches children how to write, and while Reading Trainer uses IT to improve the reading speed and retention rates of students, both of these resources rely on teachers using them effectively in order to produce positive outcomes.

As a result, when it comes to AI we too often find ourselves asking the wrong question: rather than debating whether AI will replace teachers, we should focus on how it can be used to support teachers as their sidekick, helping with hectic classrooms and busy teaching schedules.

So how can teachers use AI effectively in the classroom?

Recent history is full of examples of technological innovations which have revolutionised how we do things, and AI has the potential to do the same for teaching. As the UK education sector faces a serious teacher recruitment and retention crisis, with educators facing huge workloads and never-ending marking, edtech like AI software and learning management systems can go a long way in helping teachers to minimise the more repetitive and time-consuming tasks. This can not only improve teachers’ job satisfaction; it can also significantly boost the quality of teaching, as educators have more space to channel their creativity and attention in more useful ways.

Here are three key areas in which AI can be particularly useful:

1. Helping with marking and assessment

Marking papers is perhaps the most time-consuming and repetitive task which eats into teachers’ precious time. In fact, a survey last April by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) found that nearly half of teachers under 35 said they expected to leave the profession in the next five years, with the large workload being a key factor in this decision. AI can help to significantly reduce this burden. All the key STEM subjects are easy to mark automatically, and technology is now also branching out into more creative subjects, like literature and languages. Using technology to reduce the marking burden not only makes teacher workloads more manageable, it also allows teachers to spend more time solving complex problems and developing valuable interpersonal relationships with students.

2. Supporting lesson planning

The need to plan each lesson can be another hefty task which technology can make far simpler and more efficient. Teachers can now input all kinds of data into AI resources, including presentations, images, old lesson plans, PDFs, video and audio files, which the online software then sorts through and analyses to create easy to use lesson plans. Educators can review these suggested plans, make important changes and deliver the lesson in a way which engages the class. This saves valuable time, allowing teachers to avoid the need to wade through masses of documents and start from scratch in planning each lesson.

3. Offering adaptive and personalised learning

The question of how to offer differentiated learning, and monitor the progression of all students in a full classroom, is another long-standing challenge facing teachers. Adaptive learning technology can help achieve this personalised instruction by learning about a student as they themselves learn. This data enables the technology to understand and adapt to each student’s needs and to offer suggested next steps based on each pupil’s level of understanding and ability. The more advanced learning management systems can also offer schools in-depth breakdowns of student performance on a variety of academic indicators. This makes it easier for teachers to track student progression, identify gaps in learning and customise their teaching accordingly to meet each student’s unique learning needs.

Final thoughts

Incorporating AI in education opens up many new and exciting possibilities. It can be used to help with planning courses, assessing students and ensuring the delivery of personalised and adaptive learning. Rather than worrying that AI will replace teachers, we need to focus instead on how teachers can use AI effectively in the classroom to reap the benefits of technological innovations and free up valuable time and energy to spend on quality teaching.

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