Camilla Swift

Rise of the machines

The British government is embracing technology in transport and industry, so why not in education?

Rise of the machines
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‘There is a profound mismatch between the way we are educating our young and the world we’re educating them for, and what should, and could, be happening.’ So says Sir Anthony Seldon, former headmaster of Wellington College and vice-chancellor of Buckingham University. Seldon is well known for promoting novel ideas when it comes to education. During his time at Wellington he was often in the limelight for his original style of thinking, or ‘visions for education’ as he puts it; for example, his decision to introduce mindfulness into the curriculum there.

Seldon isn’t just a teacher, though. He’s also a historian and a political biographer, as well as being a regular on TV and radio, discussing education. His latest topic is Artificial Intelligence — and as his wont, he has written a book all about it, The Fourth Education Revolution. But this isn’t about how robots will create widespread unemployment, or driverless cars, or drones. No, Seldon’s claim is that AI could transform schools, enabling education to be personalised to each pupil, removing the need for exams and allowing every child in the country, whether they’re at a top public school or an almost failing state, access to the same technology. It will be technology that is driving the teaching.

One problem, says Seldon, is that while the British government is embracing AI in many areas — transport, industry and so on — the same doesn’t apply to our education system. ‘The government doesn’t realise it is way behind when it comes to AI in education, and that’s part of the problem,’ he says. ‘AI is the Cinderella subject, for the government and for educationalists in general. They are still locked in the 20th-century mindset without even realising that they are. What needs changing is the mindset.’ That isn’t necessarily because those in charge of the education system are blinkered. Rather, as Seldon puts it, ‘it’s simply because we are all prisoners of our own experience and this is a radically different way of thinking. [Education Secretary] Damian Hinds is, I know, very interested in AI. But he needs that enthusiasm for AI to be replicated across the education system and the teaching professions and the unions.’

So what happens if we don’t embrace AI in our schools? That’s the biggest danger, says Seldon, who argues that the current education model came into being some 500 years ago thanks to industrialisation and the printing press and signalled the beginning of mass education in Britain. It created the schools we know today, and it’s the model we still use.

This ‘factory’ model may have served its purpose in the 20th century but, says Seldon, it is no longer doing so. He has singled out five main problems with the system which make it unfit for purpose. These are: the lack of social mobility; the fact that in the current education system all students move at the same pace; an excess of teacher administration (which, he says, is ‘surely responsible for the enormous crisis that we have in teacher recruitment’); the fact that it focuses on a narrow area of skills and knowledge; and finally, the fact that the current system homogenises pupils, rather than being tailored to the individual.

New technology could help to fix all of this, Seldon claims. He’s keen to make clear that he isn’t talking about robots taking the place of teachers. ‘It’s true that these machines will be taking over some of the teaching role of teachers but that doesn’t mean to say that we’ll need less teachers,’ he clarifies. In his vision, a lot of what he calls the ‘pointy end’ of teaching would be done by machine; learning in a class of one, at your own speed and ability, rather than a class of 20 or 30. This would free up teacher time, allowing them to focus on a child’s wellbeing, rather than marking and even report writing.

AI and virtual reality will allow pupils of the future to learn at their own pace

In the book, Seldon and his co-author Oladimeji Abidoye — a research student at Buckingham University — explore various visions of the future. Yes, there are sci-fi aspects there, such as holographic teachers. But much of it is far more mundane; realistic, some might say. Technology, as it becomes cheaper, will be available to every child. Computers will enable each child to learn at their own pace — and their constant analysis of a pupil’s performance will make exams redundant. Teachers will have a load shifted off their backs, and artificial intelligence could solve the five problems that Seldon identifies as existing in the current educational model.

As Abidoye says: ‘We don’t quite have all the answers yet.’ But for Seldon, the greatest danger lies in ignoring the technological advances which could transform schools. If we get things wrong, we could end up in a ‘la-la land’ whereby we will become ‘useful idiots for the machines’.

If, on the other hand, we embrace AI sooner rather than later, Seldon believes this would ‘help us to think actively’, and allow humans to be in charge of the machines, rather than the other way round. ‘We have nothing to be afraid of from AI,’ says Seldon. ‘We have far more to be afraid of from not listening than from listening.’