Without educational experience to balance it, innovative technology in schools was so often just an invitation to waste. AI is no different.
Robots may be able to replace car drivers, but driving a vehicle safely, isn’t teaching. To think otherwise is to believe the marketing hype that comes with the latest ed-tech fad, AI.
The Cambridge linguist and author, Andy Martin, recently wrote an article for The Independent in which he expertly compared what a machine does when it translates one language into another, with what a human being does. He pointed out that all translation software can offer, however intelligent its manufacturers think it may be, is a form of tautology or equivalence. One set of words is exchanged for another set of words. One code is replaced by another code. Even a monolingual teacher knows there is so much more to translation than that.
Almost two decades ago I heard someone described as a leading international «innovationist» speaking at a major ed-tech conference tell his audience, in no uncertain terms, that it was vital for educators to innovate. Since then teachers have grown used to people who don’t teach, telling them they must do something far more important than the job they are actually trained to do.
I waited respectfully and finally asked him if he thought innovation was always good. He looked surprised, puzzled even, before replying, “I guess so. I’ve never really thought about it.” Which is indicative of how the technology industry as a whole has behaved since computers first appeared in classrooms…literally, thoughtlessly.
I had begun to believe we were at long last hearing intelligent voices talk about what technology can and cannot deliver, for teachers and schools. But one little acronym, AI, two innocent little vowels which, when combined, are somehow magically supposed to explode with meaning, has rejuvenated the cult that insists technology can revolutionize education. I have already sat on one university roundtable discussion about the subject that was so full of hot air I needed the windows open in January. In May I’ll be sitting on an expert panel at HMC’s spring conference to be held at the British Library. The entire conference is given over to Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality in Education.
One of the reasons I’d become more optimistic was because the UK’s Department for International Development is planning to create something that schools all over the world, really would benefit from. They are currently procuring a global research centre aimed at evaluating educational technology intelligently, with the goal of generating a robust body of evidence on «what works, in which contexts, why, how and for whom». I suppose twenty years, is better late than never.
Unlike so often in the past, DFID’s emphasis is not on force-feeding hardware and software down schools’ throats, whether they understand what they’re swallowing or not. This time they are looking for credible, high-quality research and evaluation of existing and future educational technology, in their local contexts, in developing nations. Far too many governments internationally, have thoughtlessly lavished money on ed-tech that has done nothing whatsoever to improve teaching and learning outcomes. I’m glad at least someone in the UK appears to have realised we can and should do better.
The ed-tech industry has always been clever at using marketing rhetoric to fuel sales. Digital natives, twenty-first century learning, flipped classrooms, the digital divide, are all good examples of the way skilled marketing professionals tap into the gap that exists between what ordinary classroom teachers know and do, and what interested external parties like businesses, lobbyists and NGOs want them to do. AI is simply the latest, self-evidently effective slogan to be picked up enthusiastically by those interested, external third parties.
The complexity of trying to use technology productively for teaching purposes, really struck me recently, talking to an undergraduate who tutors maths and physics online, mostly to kids whose parents believe what their school offers them in these two subjects is simply not expert enough. It was clear that she was exceptionally good at online tutoring, not least because of 77 customers who’d bothered to provide an online rating, 77 had rated her five stars. But more significantly, it was what she said about the way she taught that teaches anyone who still believes technology can “transform” education an important lesson.
She explained to me that, as she was tutoring live, all via a PC, video and a keyboard, she nonetheless found herself connecting one bit of knowledge with another. Even working online in this way, she was constantly listening carefully to what her students were saying and exploiting her deep levels of subject knowledge to make the vital connections for them, which they needed to help them to understand. She would spontaneously formulate analogies, create examples as she went, all the time responding to what she was hearing and seeing from the student. Every skilled, subject specialist, classroom teacher, will recognise that experience, and that it has nothing whatsoever to do with technology, and everything to do with how much they know.
I have no objection to someone designing a tractor that trundles unmanned, up and down vast fields with millimeter precision, being guided not by a farm worker, but by some distant satellite. I can even accept the idea that maybe, one day, there will be driverless cars, backed up for miles in motorway traffic jams, somehow safely avoided each other and the occasional, suicidal wild animal.
However, I don’t care how much “intelligence” sales teams or horizon scanners claim inhabits the racks of processors, or underpins algorithms they simply don’t understand themselves; the only manmade thing, even remotely capable of behaving like a flesh and blood teacher, is another man. Or to ruin the prose, but placate the politically correct, woman. Any man or woman who has ever done the job competently will tell you this.
So what I think we need to see more of – instead of techno-zealots and gurus scanning the horizon for even more folly and fantasy – is a credible balance between innovation and experience.
If experience had been there to advise some of Silicon Valley’s most famously, innovative entrepreneurs, they might have been able to remind them that if you publish something, you also bear a heavy social responsibility.
Joe Nutt 26th February 2018
Joe Nutt is an international educational consultant and columnist for the TES. He has also written for The Spectator and Spiked Magazine. After almost 20 years teaching, unusually in schools ranging from the highly selective, private sector to challenging, inner city state schools, he was seconded by the UK’s Department of Education from his English teaching post at the City of London School. The second half of his career has been in business and he has worked as a senior consultant for Digitalbrain, RM, The Education Development Trust and as a tutor for Teach First. He is a Macmillan author, has published educational research internationally and his latest book, The Point of Poetry, is due for publication in the spring of 2019. http://www.educationthinking.co.uk/about.html