Will AI replace teachers?

This was the subject at a plenary debate at the OEB conference just last December. I was intrigued. What arguments would the four expert speakers bring to the table?

Artificial Intelligence is surely spreading and its uses are getting more and more diverse. AI will definitely change the educational system as we know it, but will it really replace teachers?

I already had thought of an answer to this question before going to the plenary debate. And I certainly didn’t change my mind after it.

But before diving into the answer, let’s set some things straight about Artificial Intelligence, shall we?

What exactly is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial intelligence (AI) seems like a sophisticated thing that belongs to the future. And humanity is usually afraid of the future, and especially of something they don’t really understand.

Artificial intelligence is just a fancy way of saying that machines can learn. This may be a scary thought, but should we really be afraid of it? AI has been among us for quite a while now, making our lives easier. How come we are so used to some examples of Artificial Intelligence that we don’t even notice it, and be afraid of others, that are not that much different? Let me expand this idea a little.

Josh Bersin gives a great example of the mundane use of artificial intelligence when referring to the ATM. ATM stands for Automatic Teller Machine. And this machine is programmed by smart people to do a few banking transactions on its own. In other words, it’s artificially intelligent.

I for one can’t remember a time when banks didn’t have ATMs spread throughout the country. I like that they give me access to my own money anytime I want, wherever I may be, as long as I still have some in my bank account. But I do remember a time when my parents were skeptical about withdrawing their money from a cash machine.

They were afraid at first to interact with it. What if it wouldn’t give them the right sum? Or what if they would need some assistance that only a human clerk could offer? It’s not like you could have a real conversation with a cash machine, right? As time passed by, they both realized that human error was almost zero in the case of ATMs, and started to appreciate the fact that they didn’t have to spend too much time standing in line at the bank register just to withdraw some money.

And what did the ATM explosion mean for the banks? Did the widespread use of artificially intelligent machines make banks disappear? Did it make bankers lose their jobs? No. And no.

ATMs actually helped the banking system expand and it allowed bankers to focus on more important financial issues than assisting people who make withdrawals. Artificial intelligence transformed their jobs, making them better.

And this is what I think will happen to the educational institutions as well.

How will AI transform education?

Educational institutions will not disappear, and teachers won’t lose their jobs. But their jobs will be different.

Perhaps there will be less teaching assistants, but those people will probably become teachers themselves, or will pursue other jobs, where their brain cells will be even more challenged.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against teachers, nor teaching assistants. I’m actually amazed by their energy and capabilities. But I’m sure they’d rather put their creativity to work more often than they can now. There are plenty of situations in the life of a teacher or a teaching assistant when they have to do the same thing over and over. You know, like planning lessons each year / semester / week, repeating the same parts of lessons to different students, or grading papers, to name just a few.

If a machine can do all that, then why shouldn’t it? We don’t necessarily have to automate everything a teacher does at school, but some teaching tasks could easily be automated.

A machine is a machine. It’s created by people. It may be able to learn to perform some tasks, but it can’t really think for itself.

Teachers will still have to oversee the work done by AI to make sure it’s perfect. Since machines can’t think more than their input allows, a misspelling or a different approach to solving a math problem may affect the grade more than necessary. Only a teacher can empathize with the student’s mind and make the right decisions in cases like these.

But all the other papers that are graded flawlessly by artificially intelligent machines will mean teachers will have more time to allocate to more creative and interactive tasks.

Having ideas is what people do. And what they should do more.

Teachers have wonderful ideas every day, regarding their students and their instruction, but they rarely have the time to put them all into practice. If they could delegate some repetitive and time-consuming tasks to AI, they’d have more time to come up with innovative ideas that will benefit their classrooms, and maybe even the entire system.

Educators could focus more on how to get more qualitative interaction with each of their students. The human connection between teachers and students will not be negatively affected by assigning some teaching tasks to AI. On the contrary. Artificial Intelligence will actually put more time into teachers’ hands for developing more personalized learning paths for their students.


Will AI replace teachers?

Replace? No, it won’t.

This has been the answer I had in mind before — and after — the plenary debate about whether or not AI could, should, and will replace teachers. The thing is, replace isn’t really a great choice of words about how AI will transform education. One of the speakers really crossed the Ts and dotted the Is when he said that AI and teachers already coexist. Not only that, but teachers are central to this new AI world.

Will AI help teachers?

Most probably, it will. Artificial intelligence is on its way of becoming the best teaching assistant ever. (More on that in a future post.)

In the end, I leave you with the video of the plenary debate. It’s an hour and a half long, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy the arguments on both sides.

Author: Livia M

Livia is a Blog Writer at NEO by CYPHER LEARNING. She writes about education technology for K-12 and higher ed, gamification, BYOD, as well as other e-learning related subjects.