More news from ‘Planet of the Apps! – Mick Raven
Artificial intelligence that can teach? It’s already happening
Artificial intelligence could be heading to Australian classrooms — and in schools overseas, it’s already there.
In Bahia, Brazil, 15-year-old students David and Roama from Colegio Perfil often start their school day at home, or on the bus.
They pick up their phones, log into the education app Geekie Lab, and begin their classes from wherever they are.
“You can access it everywhere, as long as you have your phone with you,” David said.
Students from Colegio Perfil in Bahia use phones or computers to access the Geekie app.(Supplied: Geekie)
“The worst bit is you can’t really run away from homework because it says when you don’t do it,” Roama said.
Geekie Lab is one of several personalised education apps created by Sao Paolo start-up, Geekie.
It delivers the entire school syllabus to students in digital lessons that combine text, video and images.
“I live far away, and every time I have to carry heavy books,” Roama said.
“Geekie is a more practical way, you can carry it everywhere.
“All your books and all your information you get, but in a more simple way.”
The app lets each student push ahead with their lessons at their own pace.
But the software doesn’t just deliver content — it quizzes students, assesses how they’re performing, and passes this data on to their teacher.
Geekie’s engineering manager Leonardo Carvalho said an artificial intelligence (AI) engine built into the software was constantly learning about each student’s individual progress, based on these tests.
“We try to understand what are the best possible paths of learning for each student,” he said.
“Collecting data is really about knowing people better.”
So, for David and Roama, there are two “teachers” watching their progress: an AI program, and their English teacher Rafael.
“It’s like being a facilitator,” Rafael said.
“They are interacting all the time with the device, and they look for you all the time to check if you are uploading content.”
‘We need to change’
Secretary of the NSW Department of Education, Mark Scott, said this type of AI software could assist with education in his state’s classrooms.
“We need to change the way that we teach, change the tools that we use, change the operating environment,” Mr Scott said.
“Technology is a vital and exciting tool that great teachers are going to be able to use to revolutionise education in schools in the years ahead.”
Many classrooms already use educational software to teach students content, or to quiz them using banks of questions.
But this newer AI-driven software could customise personalised content for each individual student.
Mr Scott said this type of software would be able to help students learn more effectively.
“One of the great mysteries for a teacher is what a child has learnt, and why a child has learnt it,” he said.
“What I think you’re likely to see is more low-stress assessments, where kids are regularly almost doing a check-in with the technology.
“That then allows the teacher, as a specialist, to fine-tune how the teaching and learning takes place from there.
“I see a partnership between teachers and technology.
“This year we will be creating a catalyst lab where we will be looking to target small-scale experiments, investing seed money, and actually doing these pilot programs.”
A Department of Education spokesman has confirmed a “catalyst lab innovation program” will be launched in July to trial new teaching technology in classrooms.
“Ideas will focus on the theme of applied learning and are likely to range from new assessment tools and teaching resources to programs to connect schools and students,” the spokesman said.
Is AI the path to personalised learning?
Earlier this year, the Public Education Foundation said Australia’s declining performance in maths, reading and science would cost the nation $120 billion over the next 45 years.
In March, David Gonski released a new report, arguing the current mass education model was the problem.
He proposed a solution: personalised learning, which would let students work at their own pace.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has thrown his weight behind the idea.
Mr Scott said he wanted teachers and students to be ready for the changes new technology could bring to classrooms.
“We know the world outside is changing dramatically,” he said.
“We are in discussions with major technology companies and with business partners who want to help us create an environment where we can experiment and where we can scale.”
AI teachers aren’t robots standing in front of a class – yet
Back in Brazil, Mr Carvalho from Geekie said the AI software did not replace teachers.
“Teachers have a really important role in what to do with this data,” he said.
He said there were about 5 million students already using this software across Brazil.
“Teachers will always have their space at schools — there’s just a shift in their job,” he said.
“You take off the burden of some bureaucratic jobs and teachers can really focus on teaching and understanding the needs and provide different feedback or assessments for each student.”
Caution around when to use AI
There’s already a range of education technology companies using this kind of adaptive learning software, including Knewton, ALEKS, CogBooks and Embibe.
Rose Luckin, a learning scientist at University College London who specialises in educational software and AI education technology, said these systems were increasingly being used by schools around the world.
“The system analyses what that student is doing, it may also have analysed millions of students previously, and provides feedback that’s very personalised to that individual student,” she said.
“The kind of system that we can build using artificial intelligence is very good at tutoring in classic academic subjects — so, particularly science, technology, engineering, maths, but also language learning.
There’s huge potential to provide teachers for the millions of children in the world who don’t have a teacher at all, she said.
“To provide specialist tutoring in areas that a school cannot afford,” Professor Luckin said.
“We could be giving every child in the world the best tutor in the world, in a very narrow and particular way.”
Professor Luckin also said if students already had access to personal devices to access the software, it could be surprisingly cost effective.
“Technology doesn’t have sick days,” she said.
“You might have a high outlay to start off with, but actually the maintenance is relatively low.”
But she cautioned against simply replacing teachers with AI software.
“If education policy-makers and decision-makers see those systems as an economical solution to a problem of expensive teachers, teacher shortages, that’s quite dangerous,” she said.
“They can only teach a certain sort of thing.”
It frees up teachers to do the sorts of things that teachers are really good at, Professor Luckin said, such as assisting with social skills, creative problem solving, and working in a group.
For children, she said, educational AI software could be very supportive.
“It is one-to-one tutoring, it is adaptive, in a way that it’s hard for teachers who are, throughout the world, increasingly coping with much larger numbers of students,” she said.
Privacy, screen time, accessibility
Professor Luckin also has concerns about where a student’s individual data would be stored, and when that data would be used.
“I think there are also some enormous risks around ethics and privacy,” she said.
Two common concerns are who gets to use the technology, and how much we may let it make decisions in society.
Plus many parents are already anxious about screen time for children.
However, Mr Scott said schools were already trying to help students manage their engagement with technology in the classroom, and beyond.
“We need to be careful of screen time, and I certainly don’t see a future where students are just locked in front of screens,” he said.
Mr Scott said NSW could be the ideal place to trial new educational technology.
“2,200 schools, 800,000 students in the government school system — it’s one of the largest education systems in the world,” he said.
“So if you can have an impact here, in a system this size, then you’re going to have an impact on a lot of students.”
This could lay the groundwork for other education systems across the country, he said
But Mr Scott is clear that teacher training is an important part of the solution too.
“We know that finally the answer is about teaching and teaching quality, and what happens in the classroom.”