The future classroom is alive with tech potential. Soon there will be talking (and singing?) robot teaching assistants helping children with their phonics and arithmetic in class. They will recognize each child by their unique voice pattern and adapt the training to their particular needs in real time: Jane needs more help with her five-times’ table, so she gets given more questions in this area; while Jon is asked to repeat a line of limerick chosen from a Web archive that helps him get his mouth around the “ph” sound. Thus will the worlds of robotics, natural-language processing (NLP), and adaptive learning come together to assist the teacher in artificially intelligent fashion.
Far from the truth? In my optimistic, tech-fond mind it all seems quite possible. After all, Amazon’s Alexa is appearing in all kinds of gadgets this year. Apple, Google and Microsoft continue to invest heavily in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice assistance, while opening up programming interfaces to these technologies to allow smaller companies to build new products quickly and cheaply. An ever-growing number of start-ups are approaching Oxford for dictionary data to fuel NLP systems. Messaging bots and adaptive learning show more and more innovative. The confluence of these technologies in classroom assistants seem inevitable.
And yet my more realistic self realises that technological adoption in formal education will always be a slow burn because the routers in the network, so to speak, will always be human and not silicon: these are teachers, for whom, practising and imparting learning is a long-term endeavour. Change happens from generation to generation, not from point to point release of software versions.
Reassuringly for teachers, change will come in the form of hybrid human-computer technologies and not in wholesale replacement of humans. The successful AI, if you will, will be Assistive Intelligence and not purely Artificial: technology that helps teachers inspire the best from learners.
I’m highly optimistic, though, about the potential for modern computing systems in this assistive capacity. Through new conversational interfaces computers are starting to become more humane. My hypothetical talking and singing robot should be a better counterpart to learning in a classroom than an app. Interestingly, it should also inspire more humanity from those who interface with it (I have been told off more than once by my eight-year old child about not saying please to Alexa!).
So, the robots are coming, but when they get here I sense we are likely to be on good terms.
Author: Joseph Noble
Head of Partnerships & Innovation at Oxford University Press