EdTech in Schools: How far will AI go?

Published 2nd April 2019 by Frog Education

Edtech, short for education technology, is a term that has been floating around our schools and the education scene for a number of years. It has recently received more coverage because of discussions around the use of artificial intelligence in schools.

What does edtech mean?

So, what exactly is meant by edtech? The problem with defining edtech is that since it refers to any technology used for educational purposes, it really depends on when you are defining it and not what you are using the term for. For example, if we are talking about edtech in 1806, then a desktop sandbox for children to practice the alphabet in would be considered edtech.  

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet, co-founder of EdTech Europe, provides a clear definition when he explains edtech cannot be used to categorise tools such as online homework portals, distance learning platforms, educational mobile apps or even sandboxes for practising letter formation. Rather, it is about delivering a “new form of learning architecture”.

An architecture that:

  • Delivers a personalised experience for the individual by instinctively adjusting to the pupil’s current abilities
  • Uses “big data analysis” to recognise the most effective methods that will help pupils continue to progress.

How is edtech being used in schools today?

Schools are using edtech to find solutions to everything from easing administrative tasks (timetabling, scheduling, class management) and streamlining the home learning process (with online homework management software) to revolutionising how children engage with home learning by using gamification as a reward for completing tasks (FrogPlay).   

Google is even launching a ‘Chromebook App Hub’ to help teachers find the best edtech tools. Indicating edtech is playing an important role for teachers and pupils in schools.

If edtech can deliver personalised experiences and effective ways to help pupils progress, why do we often hear flurries of alarm about the increasing use of technology in education?

It is not edtech that is causing the controversy but in particular the use of “big data” and artificial intelligence. Big data is the use of large data sets that are analysed by computer to reveal patterns, trends and associations. This information is then used to make predictions and help make decisions.

Edtech, it seems, is accepted in schools as advancing learning methods and easing teacher workload. So why is AIEd (artificial intelligence tools for education) the spark that repeatedly ignites the debate?

The problem with using big data and AI in schools

For Joe Nutt, an educational consultant and author, the current controversy over big data and artificial intelligence in schools has been caused by the tech industry using the acronym AI to make what he says is actually just “machine learning” appear more clever and alluring; making it more of a threat than it really is. He quotes Michael Jordan, professor of computer science, to explain what AI actually is: “An algorithmic field that blends ideas from statistics, computer science and many other disciplines to design algorithms that process data, make predictions and help make decisions.”

A recent study on the future use of AI in schools found that parents are happier for it to be used in some circumstances over others. For example, they accepted AI to ease school administrative tasks and help teachers with lesson plans to adjust the pace of learning. But more parents were unhappy than happy about AI marking homework and making assessments on pupils’ attributes such as social and emotional skills.


Will AI replace teachers?

what is really driving our trepidation about the future use of AI in schools? Is it that we don’t trust machine-driven data to make decisions about human concerns? Or are education professionals worried that marking essays is only the start; inevitably leading to teacher-less classrooms?

Afterall, the thought of driverless cars 20 years ago was also absurd to many. Yet here we are with the technology being road tested. We have become habituated to the idea of autonomous cars with the gradual introduction of technologies that aid and improve the driving experience; cruise control, automatic braking and adaptive steering. The next stage is incremental which makes driverless the next logical step and more palatable to us. Will the use of AI gradually creep into schools until the education landscape has been automated beyond recognition?

At BETT 2016, teacher and columnist for the Times Educational Supplement, Tom Starkey, took to the stage with panel guests to talk about this.

Their discussion, entitled ‘How teachers can do what technology can’t’, is reassuring for the teaching profession and argues that teachers will not be replaced by computers any time soon. They rank teachers over robots for developing children’s creativity and curiosity as well as building character. Reasoning that the employability of students in the digital world is more important; “it’s the learning process which is key, and the relationship between the teacher and the learner”.  


The importance of the teacher-pupil relationship

Driving a car is taking part in a mechanical action but teaching is not. Nor are our children machines. Teaching is not just the effective transfer of knowledge from teacher to pupil. Assuming that learning from machines would be as effective underestimates the importance of the teacher-pupil relationship.

A 2013 scientific study looked at the importance of this relationship when communicating knowledge through teaching. The study, nicely summed up in a whitepaper from 360Learning, proves that when a teacher had high brain activity, showing real engagement during the interaction, the student also showed higher than normal brain activity; resulting in a more effective learning process. 360Learning presents this as evidence that the act of asking questions delivers the increased efficiency in learning. But is it this simple? Would questions from a computer generate the same response? Or is interacting with a fellow human the catalyst for improved learning and knowledge retention?

Teachers working with technology

Evidence can be presented in a number of ways to suggest a desired outcome; perhaps leading to the divisive opinions we have on AIEd today. However, one idea the educational sector does seem to agree on is how teachers’ involvement in the development of these new technologies will be important.

This shifts the focus from how technology might surpass teachers to how it can be kept relevant to aid teachers. Mary Thorpe’s journal article on edtech and the role of pedagogy provides a succinct outlook; concluding that students’ learning needs are always changing, as are the opportunities that technology creates. But “effective learning can only be sustained by a proactive pedagogy, working creatively with technology”.

Edtech is playing an important role in our schools today; freeing teachers from admin tasks and offering more personalised approaches for pupils to learn. For edtech to continue to be relevant and have a positive effect on learning, teachers and their pedagogical approaches will need to play an important role to inform the use and development of new educational technologies.        

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