Levelling the playing field with technology

Jake O’Keeffe, co-founder of Atom Learning, discusses how AI can be used to drastically improve the learning experience for both teachers and students

Last December’s general election saw a series of well-worn slogans repeated endlessly. ‘Get Brexit done’, ‘for the many, not the few’ and also ‘levelling up’. Levelling up referred to the government’s plans to transform the towns and cities outside of London and the south-east – but also to its stated plans for education. 

Both main parties argued the case for a more level playing field in education. Labour’s focus was on integrating private schools into the state sector. Meanwhile, the Conservatives pledged more funding and consistency in per-pupil spending. In the debate and noise that followed, there was very little discussion about the one thing that can truly achieve the aim of reducing inequality – technology.

The slow march of technology in schools

Educational inequality is certainly on the rise. 

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) reported last year that the average gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students by the end of secondary school went up from 17.9 months in 2017 to 18.1 months last year. 

Technology – and specifically adaptive learning – has the power to transform educational outcomes and tackle this disparity. It can identify weak spots for students, providing them with a tailored personal pathway, while freeing up teacher time by assisting with administrative tasks and marking so they can spend more time actually teaching. Technology offers at scale what has until now been the preserve of a privileged few.

However, while AI and machine learning has rapidly swept through many sectors of the economy, the take up in schools has been more patchy and piecemeal. Successive governments have tinkered at the edges without investing in the wholesale adoption that really could transform educational attainment for all. Although the government pledged £10m to support innovation as part of its announced edtech strategy last year, this only amounts to around just £400 for each of the UK’s 25,000 schools. 

Successive governments have tinkered on the edges without investing in the wholesale adoption that really could transform educational attainment for all

Tailored pathways for students

So how can tech achieve what many might see as a Utopian ideal? Modern adaptive learning offers the chance to truly shape learning based on the needs of individual students. AI has the power to analyse data from thousands of learners to detect patterns and correctly identify the needs of each student. Rather than teachers guessing the level at which they pitch questions, they can use AI to grade questions by analysing how previous students have answered them. AI can also predict a pupil’s skill in one area by looking at performance in another.  

For example, in maths, AI can create a highly adaptive lesson in percentages based on a student’s completion of work in operations. This means teachers can introduce a new topic at exactly the right level for each student, ensuring they remain engaged and motivated before getting acquainted with the new subject matter. 

Reducing inequality

The latest sophisticated adaptive learning machines go one step further, not only basing content on the likelihood of a student answering a question correctly, but also being able to adapt the probability based on the user’s engagement profile. For example, students who have been revising for 10 minutes will have a different ability to answer tough questions than those who have been studying for an hour. Why is this important? It gives students a sense of progress, which is crucial to instilling confidence, and maximising their long-term engagement. 

Rather than wealthier parents being able to hire tutors to provide this sort of personalised teaching at a cost, technology offers this opportunity for all. More than anything, this can reduce inequality between students. 

A collaborative approach

Sharing of best practice among schools will certainly be crucial, along with a willingness to integrate new technologies and be part of a test and learn approach. On top of improving outcomes for students today, the data can be used as a means of improving life prospects for future generations.

The government has a key role in making this case to schools, parents and wider society, communicating how technology can improve very human outcomes in education. It’s not about replacing jobs in schools, but supporting them. If we truly want to ‘level up’ educational attainment, let’s embrace technology and AI as the best method for achieving this.

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