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What will artificial intelligence do for the school of the future?

With BETT, one of the biggest educational technology shows in the world, starting tomorrow, we thought it would be a good idea to look at the upcoming developments in technology which could shape the future of teaching and learning.

“Either the best, or the worse thing, ever to happen to humanity,” is how Professor Stephen Hawking described the rise of powerful artificial intelligence (AI) at the recent opening of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at Cambridge University.

Whether we see AI as a threat to the human race, a genuine force for good, or as the eminent physicist suggests, something with the potential for both, AI is about to unleash a whole new technological revolution.

So, as we enter an era in which man can create the intelligence to do things better, what will it mean for the way we work, and what impact will AI have on education?

Brave new workplace

Let’s first take a look at what AI is doing in other sectors, medicine for instance. One key innovation that caught my eye is a machine that is capable of analysing thousands of images of tumours, recognising the differences between them and grouping them accordingly so that a clinician can see instantly which are malignant and which are benign.

It’s a process that would normally take a skilled technician a great deal of time to complete, so how can AI carry out the task in a fraction of the time? By detecting patterns, which it does with astonishing accuracy. 

Similar solutions are increasingly being used in accounting, where the same type of pattern recognition can sort and process invoices. Even if these invoices all look different, the finance department’s robot will find the account number, payment amount and due date based on what it has learnt about what an invoice looks like.

With this technology making inroads into many business sectors, we’ll soon see the day when a company’s paperwork can be read, processed and entered onto the system with no human intervention at all.

Automating tasks

But do robots like these have a place in schools?

Not this year, or next, but sometime in the future, I think they do. Looking ahead, AI could be instrumental in helping teachers mark their pupils’ work – not just the exercises with right or wrong answers, but complex pieces of writing.

We already have technology that can spot spelling mistakes, pinpoint grammatical slipups and identify clumsy phraseology. But AI could take this a step further by ‘understanding’ the content.

Picture a pile of 30 essays on the topic of Paris in the 1940s, all requiring marking and feedback. By applying the rules of AI, a machine could parse the essays, pick out patterns in the response, analyse structure and decide what is correct and what is not – however untidy or quirky the handwriting.

The impact of this on a teacher’s workload could be enormous. This technology would take care of the finely targeted correction, and with a machine to do the legwork, a teacher will be able to spend less time on the marking itself and more time giving pupils personalised feedback on how they can improve their work.

People-centred

So, does this mean that the teacher of the future risks having their job taken over by robots in the same way as the hospital technician, or the accounts assistant?

Not at all. I believe that the role of the school robot will be confined to the repetitive, time-consuming tasks that keep teachers from focusing on the part of the job which they entered the profession to do – inspire their pupils.

Perhaps education is one field where we will see the best of AI rather than the worst, because even in the age of advanced technology, it will be teachers, not algorithms, that give a child the confidence to believe in themselves and the desire to achieve. 

Photo of Phil Neal

Phil Neal

Director, SIMS Next Generation

Phil’s experience of managing and sharing information in schools and local authorities is probably second to none. Phil spent 14 years teaching in Bedfordshire, first at the sixth form college and then at a high school. During his time as a teacher, he developed a hobby programming computers and produced software that helped automate many routine tasks. He spearheaded the development of management information systems into the education sector with his role in the creation of the SIMS software suite nearly 30 years ago. The software became the most popular in the UK and is now used in 22,000 schools and 120 local authorities.

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