The robots are coming – and teachers will reap the benefits

In embracing technology, teachers and learners can thrive, says Paul McKean, Jisc’s head of further education and skills

Science fiction films tend to envision a dystopian future. They’re awash with cool technology and sleek, menacing robots – which usually form an unimaginably huge, faceless and compassion-less army. They’re rarely sitting quietly filling out spreadsheets. If I were looking for a box-office smash, I’d probably make the same choices.

Unfortunately, the (not unreasonable) result is that, when real living people hear about the emergence of robots and progress in artificial intelligence (AI), reactions are often fearful. Well, the robots are coming, but there’s no need to panic. Far from taking over your town, restricting your freedom and stealing your job, as Industry 4.0 takes shape, they’ll probably be doing your admin.

Let humans be humans

While the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s 2018 Future of Jobs report urges businesses to identify areas of work that computers can do as well as, if not better than, humans, it also predicts that machines will do the more mundane, repetitive tasks, leaving people to innovate, create, analyse, and have productive debate with other humans. If computers are ‘bean counting’, accountants’ time can be spent on analysis. In customer services, while straightforward questions are addressed by chatbots, humans deal with issues that require flexibility and compassion. Those are examples of sectors that are already being disrupted by technology. Neither are seeing a decline in human recruitment.

An educated view

AI in education
By embracing digital evolution, our educators and learners will thrive

The same should apply in education; by embracing digital evolution, our educators and learners will thrive. Recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) research states that 1.5 million jobs in England are at ‘high risk of some of their duties and tasks being automated in the future’ – and teaching is highlighted as an area to watch. This does not mean we’ll need fewer teachers. Rather, it means that around a fifth of teachers’ workload could, potentially, be automated – and that will release practitioners to focus on interpretive and empathetic work. In Jisc’s vision of a technology-enhanced Education 4.0, the simple question is: what kinds of activities do teachers currently do that they’d rather not? I think registration, quantitative assessment and paperwork would be on this list – all of which could be automated. In recognising the role of educators, we can see how their working lives can be transformed for the better.

Predicting the future

All good predictions start with what we know, and every teacher knows that the learners on their programme – whether there are two of them or 200 – won’t all start or finish in the same place, or experience learning in the same way. Yet in a didactic, traditional classroom, everyone is taught the same thing at the same time. Our vision for Education 4.0 includes personalised and adaptive systems which allow students to learn at their own pace. Some aspects of assessment could be automated, and AI could help teachers understand how learners are progressing. Machines release learning content at a time that’s appropriate to each individual student – whether that’s video or a simulation or written documents – tailoring the pace and type of learning so that everyone is challenged. While decisions are made by a teacher and discussions take place between human educators and learners, AI can sort the allocation and admin.

Bringing the joy back to teaching

Teaching staff sometimes tell me that they’re losing interest in their job. They go into teaching to teach but find they’re buried in bureaucracy. The aspiration for automation – reflected in the government’s 2019 edtech strategy – is that it cleans up the audit trail. If you think the robots are coming, you may be right, but it’s not the scary stuff of science fiction films, it’s about freeing up teachers to teach.

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