Is it too soon for AI in the education landscape?

This year saw education secretary Damian Hinds call for more tech in schools to help reduce teacher workload, but are schools ready, and how do we fix the pressing issues faced by UK education?

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Earlier this year, the UK Education Secretary called for the IT industry to work with educators to make “smarter use” of technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), to cut teachers’ burgeoning workloads.

Speaking at the 2019 BETT educational IT show in London, Damian Hinds said: “Education is one of the few sectors where technology has been associated with an increase in workload rather than the reverse.” But he added that, if used wisely, it could also reduce the amount of time educators had to spend on non-teaching tasks, such as lesson planning, marking and general admin.

Hinds cited the instance of Bolton College, which has deployed IBM’s Watson AI programme as a virtual clerk called Ada. Ada, which can answer natural language questions, provides about 14,000 students with personalised learning assessments and handles queries about the curriculum and attendance issues, both of which teachers would previously have had to do in their own time.

But according to Gary Barnett, chief analyst of thematic research at market researcher GlobalData, the Bolton example is currently the exception rather than the rule, and the adoption of AI in the UK educational sector, particularly in schools, is still far from commonplace.

“The quality of software in schools is very mixed. It’s currently a poorly served market and one that’s ripe for quite a lot of disruption,” he says. “Schools tend to have a collection of free, or nearly free products that aren’t necessarily integrated very well, although they get by, but it’s a far cry from transforming education using advanced software.”

So, for example, many schools employ student information systems to monitor attendance and undertake tracking on key assessment benchmarks such as the key stages. “But that’s a long way from the application of AI, particularly when schools are having to ask PTAs [parent/teacher associations] to finance basic things like text books,” says Barnett. “Spending £2,000 on an AI system currently feels like a bit of a stretch.”

This lack of funding is also creating a chicken-and-egg situation. There is a general perception among software companies that schools are even harder to sell into than local authorities, which means there is little incentive to try.

Systemic issues

But even if schools did have enough money, not only is their choice of software limited, but many heads and teachers are neither trained nor qualified to either select or use even basic educational technology, let alone AI tools. There is also a widespread fear of the unknown, part of which includes the much-discussed issue of jobs being automated out.

Another major concern relates to ethics, believes Elena Sinel, who is a member of the All Parliamentary Group on AI (Education Task Force) and also founder of Acorn Aspirations and Teens in AI, which provide various forums for young people to learn tech skills. A key challenge in this context is in ensuring AI does not end up doing “more harm than good”, she says.

“So it’s about looking at who is accountable if things go wrong – for example, what happens if there’s a data leak and who is ultimately in charge of the data? Or what happens if AI doesn’t assess students fairly or accurately in exams, for instance?” says Sinel.

Such questions also fit into a wider debate around whether schools are currently set up to provide young people with the skills required for the workplace of the future, or whether fundamental change is required.

“If AI is introduced into traditional education, the question is will it reinforce an already imperfect system? So do we need to redefine and reimagine education before we introduce technology that could enhance its current problems?” says Sinel.

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Such fundamental issues are currently under debate by the UK’s first Institute for Ethical Artificial Intelligence in Education, which was set up last autumn by University College London’s Institute of Education. The organisation recently held its first meeting, at which it discussed the issues that it intends to recommend the Department of Education should take action on.

But Sinel warns that Brexit means “a lot has been placed on hold” by the UK government, which has resulted in sectors, such as education, not only seeing their budgets cut but receiving little attention in general. The problem is, though, that technology is moving very fast.

This means that “if we don’t keep up and allow young people to understand the developments or help shape the world, what hope do we have of competing with countries like the US, China and Singapore?” says Sinel.

“Most of our AI talent already comes from abroad and we’ve neither got the pipeline nor are we teaching the right skills. These are systemic issues that need to be addressed – and these policies have to come from government,” she concludes.

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