Before this pandemic, technology was already disrupting education and we’ve seen a number of innovations in this space – but arguably the pace of change has been slow. What this pandemic has done and will continue to do is rapidly accelerate innovation. Over the next few years, expect to see increasing adoption among schools of learning solutions with online offerings that can seamlessly switch between in-person and virtual contexts.
And in the not so distant future, there will be no reason for a student to miss any part of their learning – whether that’s due to the exceptional – natural disasters or pandemics, or the more benign everyday occurrences of colds, sport injuries and so forth. Learning will be available anytime, anywhere and anyhow.
In the event of not being able to get to school, every student will be able to tune into their own online adaptive learning platform which will have an intimate knowledge of their learning needs and have assignments ready for them to complete outside of the classroom.
If they’re away from their teacher and get stuck on something, say algebra, no problem, their virtual tutor is on hand and will help to explain it to them. If they’ve got a big test or exam coming up but can’t get to school or a test centre – because of another lockdown- no problem, their school will be able to offer them online invigilation by using face recognition on their screens to authenticate who they are and they can take the exam where ever they are.
As education technology develops, I believe schools can offer greater personalization, engagement, and flexibility in the learning of its students. Through large-scale data processing, deep analysis of student learning behaviours, speech recognition, and automatic assessment, for example, artificial intelligence can make customized education available at scale and at a relatively low cost.
Imagine AI algorithms being used to tailor learning programs, to suit each students’ different modes of learning and enabling the student to study what they want, and whenever and wherever they want. Also imagine how much more time teachers will have to spend with their students, actually teaching, developing those 1-2-1 relationships with their students, rather than spending countless hours marking classroom work, tests and home work – because they can get an AI marker to step in and do that.
Edtech’s like Century Tech are already combining artificial intelligence with the latest research in learning science and neuroscience to offer schools and colleges in the UK with an online platform that creates personalised learning pathways for every student and powerful intervention data for teachers.
As AI gets more sophisticated, it might be possible for a machine to read the expression that passes on a student’s face that indicates they are struggling to grasp a subject and will modify a lesson delivered on an online platform or in the case of instructor led live lesson will send an instant message to a teacher to respond to that.
Companies like Imotions have been helping big retail brands use biometric techniques like eye tracking and facial expressions among consumers to test the effectiveness of their advertising and are developing new tools for the educational market.
The idea of customizing curriculum for every student’s needs is simply not scalable or affordable now for an average school – but in the not so distant future it can be with AI-powered technology.
But… there is a flipside to this story.
The pandemic has also exposed a digital divide, in both developing and developed countries. In developed countries its exposed the gap between those students with internet access at home, those with fast broadband, and those without these.
For low-income and under-served students – the shift online has exacerbated other pre-existing inequalities, making it difficult for students to complete school work and particulate fully in their education. The lack of access to the technology also negatively impacts school/parent communication and makes it more difficult for parents to support their children academically.
There is a moral imperative for governments, tech providers and educational institutions to come together to remove the barriers of access by providing the technology at low cost or free – we need to see more schemes offering free broadband and free laptops for example.
There is another problem – a potentially more harmful outcome of the use of AI in education unless we take action now. The starting point for artificial intelligence always has to be human intelligence. Humans programme the machines to learn and develop in a certain way – which means they are passing on their unconscious biases.
The tech industry is still sadly overwhelmingly dominated by white men. When there is no diversity in the room, it means the machines are learning the same biases and internal prejudices of the majority white workforces that are developing them. Could the AI engines we develop to help our children learn, learn to be subtly sexist and racist?
These pre-existing inequalities in our societies make this a very complex area – it flags up that the issue of access is only one dimension of digital inequality. Economic, social and cultural exclusions are powerful barriers that must also be addressed, and this requires more detailed and comprehensive research to better understand the intersection of technology, equity and learning and the solutions needed to enable and empower more students to learn.
Dr Parves Khan is Director of Research and Insight at Pearsons