Industry Disrupted: The Impact of Automation on Education

Artificial intelligence (AI) is already changing the way many Americans live and work. If experts are correct, it is on the brink of reshaping how we learn, too.

Thanks to advancements in learning technology, institutional collaboration, and smart devices, AI in the classroom is expected to grow by 47.5 percent between 2017 and 2021, according to market research firm Research and Markets. It is difficult to predict to what extent AI will affect students’ day-to-day experiences, but based on the technology already at work, experts suggest it could notably improve educational accessibility, equity, and outcomes.

Five Ways AI is Shaking Up the Classroom

According to HP Megatrends, AI is only just beginning to make its mark in education, but it continues to become more prevalent and integral to learning every year. Here are some of the ways AI is already changing the classroom.

Adaptive Learning Platforms

Adaptive learning software makes learning a truly personalized experience. By monitoring students’ progress and comprehension, these programs automatically adjust curricula and teaching methods to accommodate the learning styles of each student and to fill in the knowledge gaps.

While this technology is used in all levels of education, it is increasingly integrated into the learning management platforms upon which many colleges rely, especially online schools. D2L (f.k.a., Desire2Learn) was among the first to implement adaptive tech; they built Brightspace, a learning management system (LMS) for online learning and teaching. However, major corporations like Pearson soon followed suit. Some of the biggest names in adaptive learning startups include Geekie, DreamBox, Smart Sparrow, and Knewton.

Adaptive learning is not only a helpful tool; it is an educational game-changer. Students who were previously unable to attend school can now take courses and receive the customized academic support traditionally only available in instructor-led classrooms. The same is true for students who participate in high enrollment courses or face below-average educational options. It is important to note that contrary to some people’s fears, adaptive learning does not make teachers obsolete. More on that later.

Customized Textbooks and Materials

Imagine a textbook perfectly suited to students’ skills and incompetencies, free of wasted pages and extraneous information. According to the Tech Edvocate, AI startups like Content Technologies, Inc. (CTI) use deep learning technology to analyze syllabi and create customized digital texts. Cram101 and JustTheFacts101 use similar technology to create personalized study guides that focus whatever information teachers prioritize. In addition to making study time more efficient for students, AI-generated materials free teachers up so that they can focus on students rather than the busy work of creating guides and worksheets.

Automatic Course Creation and Improvement

Some edutech vendors have evolved AI from a tool that supports courses to one that actively creates and improves them in real-time. When students enroll in a massive open online course (MOOC) from Coursera, for example, they receive additional instruction and support when working through portions of the class that other students find difficult. Teachers also are notified of more complex material so that they can clarify it or spend additional time explaining it during lectures.

Then there are platforms like Nexus Learning, which help even the least tech-savvy teachers design a curriculum and create digital, audio, and video materials and adaptive assignments, with constant feedback on student outcomes. According to HP Megatrends, when combined with AI, these tools can automatically and virtually adjust all components of a course to meet curriculum changes, whether they are teacher- or government-initiated, and to meet shifting needs based on learner analytics.

Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS)

While AI in education is not yet sophisticated enough to dispatch androids as teachers, intelligent tutoring systems (ITS) are getting closer to that idea. These programs are similar to adaptive learning platforms but do more than create personalize lessons. In fact, some colleges have adopted Carnegie Learning’s ITS Mika to replace remedial courses. Mika answers student questions and offers real-time feedback on their work. Another ITS program called iTalk2Learn tutors younger kids in math while monitoring their comprehension, progress, cognitive abilities, and even emotional states.

Automated Grading

Electronic grading machines are nothing new: all it takes is a No. 2 pencil and a standardized answer sheet. Those systems have worked well enough on black and white, multiple-choice questions for decades. However, AI allows computers to analyze essays and handwritten responses. While the tech is not yet perfect, as all technology does, it gets a little better every year. It is also efficient and unbiased. As Bill Gates told tech news website The Verge, AI grading can spare teachers the drudgery of mundane tasks so that they can spend more time with their students. NVIDIA also reported that AI grading tools like UC Berkeley’s Gradescope could slash grading time by up to 90 percent.

What AI Means for Teaching Jobs

With AI handling many components of a teacher’s daily tasks, from course planning to tutoring, one might wonder how long it will be until machines make teachers obsolete. According to HP Megatrends, the answer is probably never. Instead, AI will likely serve as teaching assistants that help educators do their jobs more efficiently. There are several reasons for this. The main reason is that students do not build the same interpersonal relationships with computers as they do with humans. Teachers guide and inspire students to do their best, and are instrumental in motivating students to succeed.

Another reason AI is unlikely to take over the classroom anytime soon: change takes time, and not all educators are open to it. As sixth-grade math teacher Aaron Cheng told EdSurge, newer teachers might be open to more tech, but a lot of teachers are resistant to changing their ways. New tools like adaptive learning, for instance, require teachers to relinquish some control over student progress and curricular design. They would have to be willing to trade in the lecture hall model, where teachers stand in the front of the room to teach class, with personalized one-on-one instruction with students. In other words, AI does not segue easily into education’s status quo.

Teacher training will have to change, too, and include instruction in areas like data analytics and computer programming. According to Bill Gates, schools of education will eventually expose people to these new learning models as they become increasingly pervasive so that new teachers can enter the classroom AI-ready.

“There may be a generation of teachers that doesn’t adopt these things,” notes Gates, but for younger teachers, “they’ve chosen to be in education, and they know this is part of it.”

Aimee Hosler
Aimee Hosler

Aimee Hosler is a long-time journalist specializing in education and technology. She is an advocate for experiential learning among all ages and serves as the director of communications for a non-profit community makerspace. She holds a degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

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