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EdTech and AI – Good or Bad?

This article by SLT’s Founder, Nathaniel McCullagh originally appeared in Linked In, where you can view some interesting comments and observations from parents, teachers and AI experts.

Nathaniel also discussed the opportunities and challenges presented by AI in Education with a panel of experts and leaders in education on the SLT podcast:

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EdTech and AI in education: the illusion of progress?

In an age where artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly reshaping our world, how should our educational system use AI to evolve? And what do we want this evolution to look like?

For me, progress would lead to a greater equality of access to skilled educators who can provide emotional, academic and moral guidance to their students. These are the tools we all need to succeed in life. Can AI help achieve this evolution? It may make the dissemination of facts faster and cheaper but how will it change children’s motivation and the essence of their learning? Most agree that we need to strike a careful balance between technological advancements and the nurturing of inherently human qualities.

Only a few quiet voices seem to be calling for a reality check, a pause to challenge the seemingly ubiquitous love affair with AI and ask, ‘do our children really need this?’.

EdTech, the umbrella term for educational technology, encompasses a wide range of tools and applications that claim to enhance the learning experience. From automated grading systems to personalised learning platforms, it has infiltrated many areas of education, promising to provide a more effective learning environment. Artificial Intelligence takes things a step further, with AI powered tutors like Elon Musk’s ‘Synthesis’ (created by his son’s maths teacher) and Sal Khan’s, Khanmigo. These are marketed as a transformative force that will revolutionise the way that students learn.

The benefits of AI

At Simply Learning Tuition, we embrace the way products like Chat GPT can enhance the way we create standardised texts such as training manuals and lesson plans. It can also generate surprisingly good ideas. But is this going to lead us to genuine progress in education? EdTech alone cannot solve the inherent problems of an underfunded education system that suffers from a critical shortage of teachers, unhelpful political manipulation and unprecedented competition for our students’ attention from social media. Addressing these challenges head on is where our focus should be.

Fans of Ed Tech believe that it will free teachers from the tyranny of marking, lesson planning and the requirement to know their subjects inside out; as a result teachers will have more time to focus on human interaction with their students. I fear that it will have the opposite effect.

Good teachers will be driven from the classroom as their autonomy disappears and their role becomes secondary to the dictates of an impersonal machine.

Teachers will not be immune to the eventual dumbing down of society that AI will bring. The critical skills of evaluation, critique and curiosity may not survive the transition to a fully digital classroom. A well rounded, successful education is not simply about the accumulation of facts. Children need interaction, lively challenge and the injection of energy that can only come from a human. My wife tells the charming story of a class of prep school children she was teaching who found great collective joy in a stack of printer paper that they turned into an impressive range of sculptures, planes and fans. The happiest children are creators of their own worlds – they do not need the help of Dall-e, or Mid Journey.

AI promises personalised responses, adaptive teaching and innovative teaching methods. These sound like the existing toolkit of any good teacher. How much more innovation does the teaching profession need?

There are of course some excellent EdTech applications, such as the Metaverse Learning classroom simulators for trainee teachers and Cognassist‘s diagnostic programmes that can identify signs of SEN without recourse to an Education Psychologist. But in both cases, true evolution requires something bigger and better. It may be that AI quietly produces this sea change in the background, but I feel that it is more likely to be of human creation – and it will require energy, tenacity and a bit of luck to discover it.

The worst case scenario is a future classroom where there is no human teacher at all.

Bringing in ‘robo-tutors’ to reduce a child’s education to a series of standardised assessments and pre-programmed responses, of artificial interactions and creations, no matter how accurate, bright or colourful they may be, stifles the development of critical thinking skills, creativity, and empathy.

At school, I was terrible at Art. My GCSE composition of fruits looked more like a melted block of multicoloured butter. But at least it was my creation; and I still remember the rush of pride I felt when my teacher smiled and praised the ‘significant improvement on last week’s banana-shaped pear’.  If Dall-e or another AI can imagine and create work of art for an unskilled student, at the touch of a button, then where is the opportunity to develop one’s own imagination and technique? And where will be the emotions and feelings associated with growth and learning? Writing prompts to create a work of art does not make you a great artist.

The war cry of AI advocates in the classroom is that AI will always serve as a tool to supplement, not replace, the human element of teaching. The reality that we see in London at least, is that the opposite is becoming more commonplace every day. Many of the most prestigious schools now use online entrance assessments and online proprietary software to prepare for them.

This seems to be shifting responsibility for education from the school to the software company.

Why are parents encouraging this? Don’t they want experienced, qualified professionals to read their children’s work? From the teachers’ perspective, yes, marking is a chore, but it gives valuable insight into a student’s mind.

Who is in charge ?

AI should be used to enhance, not supplant, human interaction and the natural process of learning. But who will make sure that is does? The key regulators of the aggressive commercialisation of the education space are school leaders and teachers. They must tread carefully. Naturally creative and forward thinking (and with a keen eye on parental demands) they need to play a critical role in limiting the inappropriate use of AI-driven tools, ensuring that they align with pedagogical principles and promote genuine understanding and creativity.

Who is building the AI systems that will soon educate our children? Are they teachers? What are their pedagogical qualifications, morals and ethics? What is their experience of children? Will their AI systems reinforce their own societal prejudices and stereotypes? Will they marginalise vulnerable groups? Or unintentionally homogonise disparate ones?  At Cottesmore School‘s excellent 2023 conference on AI in Education, Sir Anthony Seldon made the bold claim;

“AI could allow a child of the Brazilian favela to have an identical education to one in a prosperous European suburb.”

Both could then have an equal chance of getting a place at Eton. To some this levelling up may be a panacea, but doesn’t it highlight another prejudice – who exactly is creating this pedagogy? Does the entire world really want, or need to be educated to Western values? Or are we being sold a beautiful dream, straight out of a Silicon Valley VC’s pitch deck?

How can we harness the potential of AI without compromising the fundamental principles of effective learning?

Will AI help our children to grow into better humans? Will it free them from their screens and encourage them back into the real world? I doubt it. A client asked me last week if he could take on his son’s Business Studies tuition. Not if you want him to pass was my initial thought, but then I realised that I had completely missed the point. A CEO who spends 200 days on the road, wanted permission to interrupt his son’s endless after school commitments to give him some one-to-one attention. What could be better? The son will probably learn far more by spending that precious time with his father who will be able to put the learning into his own real world context. The key lies in striking a balance between technological advancement and the preservation of essential learning skills, one of which is spending time with other humans with whom you can exchange energy and attention.

The soft skills, pastoral care and humanity that the vast majority of teachers give to their students is far more important that the facts they deliver.

The vital human touch

As a private tutor, every student I worked with needed emotional support as much as they needed the answers to the next test. I do not believe there should be separation between a child’s emotional development and their education. Growing up is tough and children spend more time with their teachers than their parents.

On the subject of pastoral care, I was shocked by a recent visit to a popular international school outside London.

If a member of staff sees a student who they suspect to be unhappy, or who looks anxious, they press an alert on their smartphone.

If sufficient alerts are received, the system triggers an intervention – the student is asked (by the system) if they would like to attend a counselling session. This system lacks the warmth and intuition of human care. It exemplifies a broader trend where technology is encroaching on areas traditionally governed by human empathy and understanding. Software developers can afford to hide behind screens. Pastoral care cannot.

Teachers should be emboldened to ask a student in trouble if they are OK, or if they want a chat – not wait for a computer to tell them it is appropriate to do so.

Students can only learn when they are emotionally engaged. Brain-damaged patients with fully functional frontal cortex cannot learn if their ability to emotionally regulate is damaged. A good teacher engages their students’ emotional buttons; as a shepherd, role model, confidant, mentor, friend, and on the flip side, a challenge, an authority, a disciplinarian, forcing children to toe the line. Pink Floyd knows what happens when this authority goes too far but generally this contrition is a necessary part of growing up. Good teachers provide stability. The more interaction our students have with these people the better.

The move towards a technology-centric educational approach, such as the ‘zero pen to paper’ policy raises significant concerns.

Last year, we were asked to help a bright student move to a new school for Sixth Form. He had top grades across all his school reports. But when we tested his handwriting it was illegible. He was subsequently assessed with dyspraxia and dyslexia – learning difficulties he had been unaware of for several years because his £45,000 a year private school had never asked him to turn in a piece of handwritten work.  The problem will become worse as Ed Tech proliferates. Online schools allow work to be turned in using spell check with little more than a modicum of genuine human engagement between a teacher and their class. Chat GPT is so good it makes it hard not to cheat – if indeed it is cheating (if I wrote the prompt, don’t I own the thinking and the answer?) As a result, Ivy Leagues are turning to oral debate to assess their students.

At the other extreme, schools that do avoid the use of Ed Tech (this includes some of the most prestigious London prep schools), may be setting their children up for polarisation in a world that is becoming increasingly reliant on it.

Who are the parents that actively reject EdTech?

In 2023 Simply Learning Tuition has been approached by several families eager to create bespoke home school programmes along the lines of Charlotte Mason’s ideal of a liberal education. These parents wanted to ban the use of screens and they insisted on pen to paper teaching. They wanted at least half the teaching to take place outside the classroom. Can you guess the unexpected common denominator? All of these parents made their fortunes in EdTech. (Incidentally, Steve Jobs didn’t allow his children to use an iPad at home).

What of the future?

The skills that will define success in the future are profoundly human: creativity, empathy, teamwork and critical thinking.
(2023 Goldman Sachs survey of 10,000 Small and Medium sized UK businesses).

These are not just buzzwords; they are the core competencies that differentiate humans from machines. These skills don’t emanate from machine learning algorithms; they are forged through real-world experiences, challenges, and often, through failure. They are more crucial than subject knowledge.

Education should be more than just a transfer of information; it should be a journey of personal and intellectual growth; a freedom to imagine through hours of blue sky thinking. It should be unrestrained by the observation, analysis and ultimately, direction, of almighty algorithms.

How do we ensure that our education system, while incorporating the efficiencies of AI and Ed Tech, continues to prioritise and cultivate the uniquely human skills that make us human?

Teachers must not become mere co-pilots to AI but should remain firmly in control of the learning process.

I’m not sure this is possible if we continue our unquestioning acceptance of AI.

Instead, we need to shift our focus towards fixing the undervalued profession of teaching, not watching from the sidelines at it is supplanted by AI. If we get it right, education can evolve to help us become better human beings, rather than AI dependant cyborgs.