Artificial Intelligence in Education, "What’s the point?"

Carolanne Tremblay
Carolanne Tremblay

So what is artificial intelligence (AI)?

According to the Collins English Dictionary, it’s "the study of the modelling of human mental functions by computer programs."

The purpose and development of artificial intelligence regularly give rise to fantasy and concern. Literature and film often present it as a danger to humanity. Take films like The Terminator and The Matrix, for example. Still today, many people fear that computers will someday become more intelligent than humans and "take over the planet".

In reality, humans have more to offer than intelligence. They are also capable of empathy, critical thinking, moral or ethical judgement, emotion, understanding the nuances of language, etc.

So will AI ever replace teachers? Far from it! In fact, the Brookfield report shows that teachers are in the top five jobs least likely to be replaced by a robot. And that's because the vast majority of what teachers do goes beyond repetitive and administrative tasks. In other words, teachers don't just teach their students how to do; they also teach them how to be.

In order to support them in this most important mission, artificial intelligence in education must first and foremost enable staff members to avoid cognitive overload, a problem frequently encountered in schools. Rather than replacing them, technology should relieve them by doing time-consuming, repetitive and analytical tasks for them.

By accompanying education professionals in their decision-making, professional assessment (without replacing it) and educational choices, AI can reduce the noise and allow them to focus on the essential: creating positive relationships with students. So how can we go about this?

Let's start by looking at some of the branches of artificial intelligence. On one side is deep learning, also known as machine learning or neural networks, which consists of building a machine, inputting data and asking it to learn (in basic summary). For example, to develop software that can recognise a cat in a photo or image, I would have to show it hundreds of cat photos and help it recognise the characteristics of a cat until it can recognise them by itself.

On the other side is domain modelling, also called expert systems or rules-based automation. It is a way of developing an algorithm by collaborating with domain experts. A simple example is a robot that was created to play chess. This machine managed to beat a human at the game, but the person was able to learn a lot from their defeat!

Artificial intelligence is everywhere in our lives. Automated cars that can drive from point A to point B. Voice commands, advertisements that target our needs and desires by analysing our clicks or our Facebook or Instagram feed that evolves with our "likes".

In education, the learner is at the core of daily concerns. Technologies designed for schools must have these same concerns at heart and put the student first. Through deep learning, artificial intelligence can, among other things, analyse data sets and be trained to understand student profiles, how to reward them, coach them, motivate them, etc. It can target drops in motivation and risks of dropping out, note recurring behaviours, understand what works and what doesn’t for students. In short, it builds a body of knowledge that allows education professionals to understand their students from another angle and to use this information to improve their actions. Not bad, huh?

And what about the increasingly popular chatbots? These virtual tutors can operate and support students at many different levels in education. When used wisely and with an awareness of their limitations, these programs can provide advice for education and mental health, answer questions from students and even support teachers in improving metacognition! And since they are available evenings and weekends, they can follow students in their transition from school to home and continue to help the student progress, find the strategies that work for them and optimise their learning skills.

Having an accurate analysis of the profiles, understanding their particular needs, supporting their metacognition, adapting their learning process are all ingredients for success. For the student, understanding how they learn and for adults, targeting their individual needs to provide the right tools will support the success of all students.

In short, artificial intelligence can be used in many different aspects of education! Unfortunately, schools can hardly keep up with the speed at which society is changing digitally. Young people are already discovering how to use new technologies by themselves. As educational actors, wouldn’t we prefer to accompany them so that they have the tools to control artificial intelligence? In my opinion, we must teach students to develop their critical thinking about technology. Let's talk to them about the ethical issues related to artificial intelligence so that they are aware. They are our future so let's make sure they have the analytical skills to take it in the right direction.

Lastly, if there’s only one thing you need to retain from this article, it’s that AI should take care of the repetitive tasks that cause cognitive overload and give time back to school personnel. Technology should allow them the time to get back to what is important and what first drew them to education: creating bonds with students, encouraging the development of caring people and a love for teaching.

Carolanne Tremblay

Product Owner

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