Glancing around school classrooms in 2016, it’s easy to miss just how far technology has transformed learning over the last decade. The desks, whiteboards and rows of chairs are the same, but so much else has changed that can’t be seen.
A third of Britain’s schools are asking students to bring their own tablets and laptops into the classroom now, coding has been on the national curriculum for three years, and more and more education is happening outside school through apps and digital services.
But these changes are just the start. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the next giant leap in learning and, according to those working in the field of education and technology, we haven’t seen anything yet.
“Some technologies in the field of education have had the potential, but not the ability, to deliver or transform,” says Ian Fordham, chief executive of Edtech UK, the strategic body for education technology in Britain.
“The recent developments in AI and machine-learning are a major exception with the potential to revolutionise how young people learn, teachers and tutors teach, and how society drives forward learning in the future.”
If you don’t think AI is poised to change your world, maybe you haven’t spotted the signs. It’s not just Apple’s Siri getting better at telling jokes or ordering you a taxi, AI is recommending what you should buy on Amazon, listen to on Spotify and even writing the news articles you read (but not this one).
Last year a group of the most respected tech entrepreneurs, including Tesla’s Elon Musk and PayPal’s Peter Thiel, pledged $1 billion to the creation of OpenAI, a non-profit “friendly” AI to benefit all humanity.
This year Google’s DeepMind took on and beat the best human Go player in the world, and Facebook launched a virtual assistant, powered by AI, called M.
The sheer wave of investment and energy being poured into AI is undeniable and on par with mankind’s greatest endeavours – and now it’s coming into the classroom. First, forget any notion of robotic teachers. In fact, human teachers will be vitally important in rolling out and developing AI in education.
“AI will not replace tutors, it will support them and it will guide them to be better teachers,” says Tom Hooper, founder of Third Space Learning.
Third Space began in 2012 by providing one-to-one maths tutoring over the internet by connecting children with teachers around the world. Since starting, nearly 350 UK schools have enrolled 6,000 struggling students on to Third Space.
And the real magic is what Mr Hooper and his team are doing next. “We record every session that we deliver, thousands of hours of teaching and learning every week – a huge quantity of data on human interactions,” he says.
“About 12 months ago we started a research project with University College London looking at what patterns there are around positive teaching outcomes and how we can optimise teaching interactions to promote best practice.”
By boiling down teaching to this level, Third Space’s ultimate goal is to build a platform that can give real-time feedback to its online tutors and empower them to become even better educators.
Say a child misunderstands a core mathematical concept or a teacher accidentally skips something, the AI could alert the teacher to this problem before it becomes a bigger issue later in the child’s education.
“If we can aim to shape the performance of the teacher – the teacher being the significant input into a child’s learning – then you’re creating something truly powerful,” says Mr Hooper.
He imagines a world where every teacher, both in and outside the classroom, is guided by an AI that has itself been trained by the learnings from millions of lessons.
But why do we need AI in the classroom at all? Aren’t teachers doing a good job? For one, class sizes are growing.