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Educational Chatbots have a Key Part to Play in Transformation of the Classroom.
We often think of Education Technology (‘Edtech’ or ‘Edutech’) as being a relatively new phenomenon, but the reality is that the use of technology in the classroom has been around in the digital form since the mid-80’s. Whilst the past decade has seen the pace of its use increase, the recent pandemic has led to hyper-acceleration of the topic as a result of home education.
It is a booming market. According to McKinsey, the use of artificial intelligence in the education sector in the US alone has the potential to grow by USD $253.82 million during 2021-2025, with a market growth of 49.22% CAGR. As a result, there is a greater focus on Edutech start-ups, raising $1.78 billion of venture capital in 2020, and representing a 25% increase from the previous year. Gone are the days when students would need to visit the library, as almost all information is already available online. They don’t even need to type a query into their laptop, as voice recognition can source answers to almost any question.
Learning traditional skills such as maths and languages runs the risk of becoming increasingly irrelevant. Maths can be more accurately carried out by machine. History becomes a matter of understanding and interpretation, rather than remembering names and dates. Within a generation, language skills will be replaced by instantaneous cloud-based voice translation. What hope is there for the current education syllabus?
We already recognize that many jobs in the future world of work will be transformed by artificial intelligence. It is natural that we should also think of the impact of edutech on children and also on their physical classroom structure. But beyond this, few consider the effect on the teaching profession which is equally set to be transformed. The role of educational chatbots will almost certainly play a large part in that change in teaching. Many of us have images of our own teachers in our mind. These teachers were (and in many cases still are) people who have had a variety of skills ranging from instructive techniques (aka teaching skills) to supportive and motivational skills (aka coaching).
The particular challenge of teachers has often been one of working with a large number of students in the classroom who have differing needs, and whose educational progress is moving at different paces. The role of the teacher seems to be almost one of providing a juggling act, as he or she tries to educate the whole class as one, yet tries to manage individual requirements. It’s clearly not an easy exercise and one which requires considerable cognitive expertise as well as subject matter knowledge. But it’s a model which also has the potential to become obsolete.
Education is increasingly moving away from the process of “direct teaching” into “self-directed learning”. This includes the use of video and other multi-media. The key benefit of self-directed learning is that it essentially allows the student to learn at their own pace. When integrated into AI educational systems, it is possible to understand what parts of the curriculum are the most difficult for any particular student to understand, measured perhaps by the number of times that they need to reread sections or have to take a pause. When integrated into such a system, an education chatbot can invite the student to ask specific questions to help with their understanding, or to provide greater depths of information where there are apparent gaps.
In such a technologically-based model, the role of the teacher is not necessarily replaced but rather is supplemented by the technology. Some teachers might suggest that this is not as big a change as one might think. They have already become quasi-technologists as they use language laboratories, smartboards, and more recently video conference experts, and this is a trend that is likely to continue.
There are pros and cons to the use of educational chatbots. On the positive side, chatbots are responsive, can provide timely and relevant resources, and can be customized to the needs of the student. On the negative side, some might argue that a chatbot is inadequately personalized, lacks character, and fails to provide the student with an appropriate educational experience. Some might even say that there is an absence of any emotional connection, typically one of respect for the teacher. It’s only a temporary setback. Sooner or later, advanced technologies are likely to be able to give chatbots a personality.
The reality is that, in a pure educational format, the advantages of AI and educational chatbots seem to outweigh the disadvantages. It represents a movement away from classroom-based teaching into a 1-2-1 approach, with education becoming individualized at the point of consumption. There are however some logical issues to consider. If the role of the teacher increasingly becomes one of mentor and coach, to what extent can the teacher ultimately be replaced by the parent? Will some type of home learning, perhaps in a hybrid teaching model, become increasingly normal?
It’s likely that the classroom of the future will become a place for debate and social interaction, rather than simply a place of teaching. It will be a place where the skills needed for a new AI-infused era will be honed and developed. Creativity and innovative skills will prove to become more important than maths and science, and these are the elements most likely to be taught in the forthcoming classroom.
Going forward, even language differences will not provide a barrier to learning. Already capabilities exist for online/ real-time translation of presentations written in a different language. As that capability becomes more mainstream, then the tendency of many students to want to travel overseas for educational purposes alone may also be affected. With many international universities depending on overseas students for funding, the current financial business model for Higher Education may also be under threat. After a massive increase in the number of universities, perhaps we might even see a reverse trend, ultimately leading to consolidation in the education sector?
Finally, we should also address the issue of examinations. Once comprising not much better than memory tests, or measures of numerical dexterity, the time will surely come when the examination process will need to be revamped because of the impact of AI. To the inevitable relief of students everywhere, so-called ‘cramming’ for exams will be something confined to history books.
In Further Education and Higher Education, colleges and universities will increasingly use AI to identify the most appropriate students, including those that will either go on to have a successful career - or even worse, those who are most likely to drop out at the end of the first year. Perhaps in the future, we will use Edutech in some way to converge the entry requirements of the college and university with the attributes of the student, to ensure an ideal ‘fit’. The attributes of the student may include the way that they interact with their personal edutech, and the questions which the student asks their educational chatbot?
In the same way that an AI-infused future will change the nature of work, we have to face the fact that it must also change the nature of education as well. Educational chatbots have a key part to play in that transformation.