In our era of seemingly endless possible applications of artificial intelligence, one area of society could be set to benefit more than any other: education. While in numerous professions automation breeds redundancy, the teaching profession sits on the brink of being revolutionised.
And there’s certainly an appetite for revolution. Edtech — education technology — is one of the UK’s fastest-growing sectors, with the government reporting that Edtech companies account for 4% of all digital companies. As reports The Education Foundation, in the UK alone the sector is made up of over 1,200 Edtech companies and is also growing 22% per year. It’s a similar picture in the US and in mainland Europe.
A small but decisive number of Edtech companies are making use of artificial intelligence in their software products. For example, UK-based startup Century has created an AI-led platform that provides students with highly personalised learning pathways. Century’s platform also provides data analytics tools for teachers to monitor the progress of each of their students. Founded in 2014, Century’s product is already being used by a handful of schools.
Policy makers, like the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, have been largely supportive of the Edtech sector. The fostering of a culture of digital innovation in education comes as part of the government’s broader digital strategy to encourage more autonomy for schools from the bottom up.
In the classroom, educators have always sought to incorporate the latest technologies — from overhead projectors to iPads — into teaching. Today, teachers have myriad of technological tools to choose from to efficiently execute teaching strategies according to the needs of their students.
Over the last decade, teachers have been able to choose from various curriculum-oriented (non-AI) software that supports learning. Naz, a secondary school teacher from South East London, said “I use a quizzing game that students play along with on their phones, which can be useful for doing a general refresh of student knowledge or as a fun treat. It’s got buzzy energising music that is both very distinctive and that seems to make students hyper-enthusiastic.”
A primary school teacher in Islington, Risa, said “I use lots of different types of software depending on what I’m teaching. I’ve used software like Language Angels, Times Tables Rockstars, Hour of Code to name a few. Some of them offer prepared lessons. But of course, they require a teacher to actually deliver those lessons.”
“Some resources are particularly popular — especially those built for learning language or code — because they contain specialised knowledge that not all teachers have. For example, Hour of Code gives you various tutorials on things like how to code games, for which the teacher doesn’t really need to provide any input.
“Some of them allow you to assess and monitor children’s progress,” Risa continued. “You can see how often the students are using it and how quickly they’re progressing. For example, with Times Tables Rockstars you can see that a particular child is doing well with their two, three and four times tables, but not so well with their seven, eight or nine.”
While the use of data analytics to monitor progress is nothing new, what’s so powerful about the use of artificial intelligence in platforms such as Century is that it means the platform can figure out not just what area of learning a student may be struggling with but also why that student might be struggling with that area. The platform’s use of microdata means it is then able to constantly adapt the pathway based on students’ interactions in an optimised synergy of teaching, exercising, testing and feedback, all the while offering teachers a suite of actionable insights for their entire class and specific children.
So there are a number of things AI-led platforms could help resolve. The process of getting to know what each child is struggling with and why could be made more efficient and accurate with the help of real-time, personalised data collection (in turn streamlining the planning of future lessons). Having subscriptions to a range of assistive technologies could be encompassed within one learning ecosystem, saving schools money. Frontline learning efficiency can also be boosted with the rolling of the various aspects of learning (like teaching, testing and feedback) into one.
What does the future hold for technology and education? For staff at Edtech Magazine, it’s one in which a single learning ecosystem governs every aspect of every area of learning. Indeed, AI-led platforms may well lay the foundations not just for a new assistive classroom technology but also suggest significant changes to the daily tasks of a teacher. But at this stage, they could turn out to be anything between just another assistive classroom tool or the prompt for a broader, paradigmatic shift in the role of teachers.
For now, one big frustration for teachers doesn’t look set to be resolved anytime soon. “As it stands, students spend far too much time on their phones in general. So it’s very important to balance out screen time,” said Naz.