Will AI make exams and traditional universities redundant?

In his new book, Sir Anthony Seldon prophesises the end of traditional HE education, thanks to the booming expansion of AI

The Fourth Education Revolution, co-authored by University of Buckingham student Oladimeji Abidoye, takes a tantalising look into the school of the future, what AI will mean for HE as well as how it will impact on our lives in general.

The book envisages ‘smart schools’ where students have a plan each day and set their own work after discussing with teachers what they’ll do that day. They work with a virtual teacher and have an appraisal of progress to date which is continuously updated. The teacher is more of a personal tutor helping with problems, pastoral care and wider personal, social, cultural, sporting and character development, and can offer more help with issues than the traditional model. The student will learn at their own pace so children as young as 11 could be studying maths at university level. Lessons, with classes as small as 10, will be delivered by the best teachers and the most knowledgeable subject specialists in the world.

One advantage of a virtual teacher is that they will be available in the evenings, weekends and over the school/university holidays. Sir Anthony says in the book: “The personalised face on the screen or hologram will even age along with the student themselves. Should boredom with the digital AI teacher become a problem, a new teacher can come into the student’s life.”

The school of the future will not have classrooms – it will be open plan with flexible seating, so students can work alone or together debating or working on projects. There will be green areas inside and out and they will be powered and watered by locally sustainable supplies and some of their food will be grown by students. They will have animals which students will help look after, according to the book published by the University of Buckingham Press.

Sir Anthony, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, added that continuous assessment would sound the death-knell for exams: “The all-conquering cumulative exam is going to die and we should celebrate its death… The monolithic exam is drawing to a spluttering end.”

He says in the book that another change would be that “the administrative burden which has handicapped teachers for hundreds of years will be taken off their shoulders, making their task far more rewarding.”

Teaching will also benefit from science making progress in understanding how people learn, in order to produce conditions that optimise learning. Software would allow, for example, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf to be translated into a 3D reality, allowing students to wander around the setting of the poem and interact with the characters.

It’s not just the positives that are explored. One expert warns of one possible danger – children could become “fat, screen addicts”, and another expert asks whether the advent of simultaneous translation will lead to language teaching becoming obsolete.

Another theme is the need for comprehensive retraining of teachers: “What many teachers most enjoy is helping their students learn a subject and develop as human beings. But if machines are performing both roles, then what is there left for the teacher? Professional changes to teacher training and a completely new mindset and approach to the job of teaching, and to the task of school leadership, are urgently required.”

Big changes are predicted for universities too – the end of the lecture hall as students watch online, and Oxford University possibly becoming redundant – as the quality of virtual teaching improves. Sir Anthony speculates a greater number of local universities are a possibility and some institutions could charge fees as high as £40,000. A student’s grades may no longer matter as employers will be able to draw on considerably more comprehensive information. Universities could even cease to exist if efforts aren’t made to ensure students meet and share learning.

Sir Anthony suggests a number of urgent steps are needed:

  • Every school child must be taught about AI in lessons with immediate effect.
  • Schools need to make students into active learners and to develop their free will, as opposed to the current education system which teaches the young to be passive learners. If we don’t, AI will outwit them.
  • We need AI machines to teach students to become more fully human – the education system currently deploys humans to teach our young to become more like machines.
  • The government doesn’t understand the role of AI in education. It is obsessed by AI and ethics and AI in the economy, but it has ignored education.
  • Schools and universities are hell-bent on preparing students for the work place – of yesterday. Our schools and universities need to develop much broader intelligences and competencies.

Seldon says in the book: “Our politicians, educators and administrators the world over are asleep to the fourth education revolution hurtling towards us. We are failing our young people, our country and the world by not adapting quickly enough to how AI will change the way that education takes place, the jobs it is preparing them for, and the society in which they will live”.

“AI is the biggest change to education since the printing press. It can be compared to the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the 1880s, except it will change the world far more subtly and profoundly. If we can take the right decisions, we will see the biggest enhancement of human fulfilment and happiness the world has seen. Get it wrong and the quality of our life will suffer a catastrophic loss.”