Meet Your New Teacher: The AI!

Education has been immensely affected by the on-going digitalisation of everything the COVID-19 pandemic leashed upon the world. With schools closing down and universities moving exclusively into remote learning, teachers and professors as well as pupils and students have found themselves working in completely new circumstances.

In order to make sense of where the world of education is headed, it is first important to identify the trends that were already emerging before the pandemic hit.

According to Futures Platform’s Foresight Manager Marianne Mäki-Teeri, digitalisation of learning was progressing at a speed even before the pandemic, particularly in the field of higher education.

“Ever since the turn of the millennium, the amount of open online courses as well as remote degrees have become common offerings of many top universities as well as public and private educational institutions. There has been an increasing amount of initiatives to use technology to make learning more effective,” she says.

Examples of such technology include machine learning and, in the field of remote education, telepresence. Additionally, the importance of data was gaining foothold in education, both in terms of programme contents and also in how it can be used to improve learning.

“The increasing feasibility of remote education has also started changing the role of physical space in education, creating more pressure to design new kind of learning environments that are flexible, adaptable and suitable for a multitude of different uses at the same time,” Mäki-Teeri adds.

The Future of education after COVID-19 and the changing role of humans

The relationship education had with digitalisation was not completely straightforward.  It was a work in progress, always changing.  As information production was becoming automated many professions were thought to be redefined or even ceased to exist in the future.

According to Mäki-Teeri, the future role of humans has been thought to be focused on tasks requiring creativity, ingenuity, or flexibility.

“Still – the content of educational programmes has not reflected this. Many of the current learning and assessment modules have been criticised for encouraging mere memorisation, search for a single correct answer, and avoidance of mistakes. In addition, there is a mismatch between what degrees, or skills people study and what is actually needed in the future,” she says.

And finally, digitalisation had started to impact the role of the teacher as well. On the one hand, digital skills were becoming an integral requirement of the teacher’s job. On the other hand, technology was hoped to solve some issues in the field, such as the lack of well trained and experienced teachers.

To summarise, digitalisation was already in the process of transforming education when the pandemic arrived. Then everything closed down and now we are looking at a picture that has accelerated digitisation.

Teachers need ICT upskilling

“The COVID-19 pandemic started the largest and fastest remote learning experiment in human history. It has pushed students and teachers alike into the digital era, regardless of their interest, skills or level of education,” Mäki-Teeri describes.

The immediate consequence of this experiment has been a massive collection of new experiences, new educational content and loads of useful data that will fuel the development of technology and data-based learning. Already, the edtech sector is experiencing a massive boom. The world’s most highly valued edtech company, Indian BYJU, experienced a 60% increase in new students using its solution within just a week of making it free. In China, several companies such as Tencent put together free online learning services that helped millions of schoolchildren suddenly shift to remote learning.

In practice, Mäki-Teeri believes this development will have a variety of consequences.

To start with, if digital skills were becoming important for teachers before, now they are largely impossible to cope without. As the lack of ICT training in teacher curricula was a known issue even before, now UNESCO has been leading the front in emergency upskilling teachers to run their classes online.

“With technology, it is also possible to make the profession itself more attractive and teaching more innovative.”

For students and pupils themselves, the impacts of the pandemic depend more on the level of education and – unfortunately – socio-economic standing. In April 2020, UN reported that half of the students currently out of school did not have a working computer. Even out of those who do, many don’t have an internet connection, conditions or support form parents to take schooling online. “For young children, the situation is worse. While digital solutions can be used for learning, they are not as suitable for pedagogy and certainly cannot replace the presence of a human teacher in a structured school environment,” Mäki-Teeri says.

She believes that if we were able to foresee the future of education, we would be looking at a hybrid model combining digital and physical will be applied for education for the ages and levels where the pedagogic aspect is vital.

Future of education after COVID-19: AI becomes the teacher

But when it comes to the future of education after COVID-19 itself, specifically in terms of digital solutions, a more profound transformation is on the way. According to Thomas Frey, Executive Director and Senior Futurist of DaVinci Institute, the pandemic and the consequent edutech boom may just be the final push that is needed for technology to develop to a level where it will disrupt the entire world of education and learning.

“This pandemic is a period of great chaos. In the middle of chaos comes great opportunity. My thinking is that we absolutely need to hyper-individualise education,” he summarises.

In practice, hyper-individualising education translates into a human-to-AI interface that monitors the student and learns about them until it knows what the student is proficient in and what they still need to learn. Based on this, the AI teacher bot will determine what the student needs to learn. It feeds the student information in a bite-size format based on what it knows about the most optimal times and ways to learn different kinds of information to each individual, personally.

Because  AI knows what the student already knows, there is no need to review things that have already been learned. This saves time.

“That not only makes the task less tedious but could also triple or even quadruple the speed of learning. We could be talking about learning the worth of an entire college degree in just a month,” Frey describes.

The true scale of the potential impact of the AI teacher becomes more apparent when other technologies likely to develop in parallel to it are considered together with it. For example, the next-generation user interfaces are likely to involve technology like smart glasses or personal projectors – instead of displaying information on a mobile device, the AI teacher can display it in front of the student’s vision.

According to Frey, a leap in search technology can also transform learning.

“Before, if you had a difficult question needing an answer, you went to a library and found your answer after 10 hours of research. Today, you use search engines for your research and find the answer in maybe 10 minutes. The next generation could be a cap you put on, you think about the question and find your way to the answer in 10 seconds,” he says.

Inevitably, this would mean memorising information becomes largely redundant while the ability to formulate questions and find answers would become critical.

“In addition, the future of the internet is likely to be three-dimensional instead. We are so used to thinking two-dimensionally because of the devices we have been using, but what if you throw monitors and mobiles out – what would the internet look like?”

It could perhaps look like a place where the answer you are looking for exists in a virtual universe you can search in far more sophisticated ways that are known to us today. For example, all information regarding a specific city could be stored in a three-dimensional digital twin of it.

“We are not there yet, of course – a long way away, still,” he adds.

But the pandemic is a big push into that direction – towards a place where the entire approach to learning, knowledge and education will be transformed.

And how are schools changing then if all of this comes true? In this scenario, the role of human teachers undergoes a profound change as well.  “The teacher transitions from a person who has all the answers to someone who is more like a facilitator,” Frey describes.

“As we continuously create more information, the world is just bubbling over with new content and it is happening faster and faster. Transferring all this from one generation to the next is becoming increasingly difficult. We need to create a system that can keep up with us – somehow we need to make learning more automated,” he concludes.

*This article is modified version of a blog-post originally published by Futures Platform. The article is based on an analysis by Futures Platform, with insight from the acclaimed Futurist Speaker Thomas Frey and Futures Platform’s Foresight Manager Marianna Mäki-Teeri. To learn more about Futures Platform, please click here