From e-mail communications and web searching to social media and digital assistants, the concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is present in many aspects of our daily life. AI in education, however, is a concept that could be new to many school teachers. How can we incorporate AI into the classroom? What does the future classroom look like with AI? We answer these questions and more with Director of AI Industry Innovation, AI Singapore, Mr Laurence Liew.
“If you have watched the 2016 Star Trek movie, you will remember a scene from it in which Spock the Vulcan was having a lesson in a hemispherical-shaped cubicle,” Laurence shares. “Spock was bombarded with questions from an Artificial Intelligence (AI) and interacting with it by responding to those questions. No humans were involved in the teaching process at all.”
Will this be the future of our Singapore classroom?
Teachers are Indispensable
Thankfully, Laurence assures that the role of teachers will never be replaced by AI. “Coming back down to Earth, even as we move forward with the use of AI, the role of a teacher remains very important,” he says.
Laurence believes that the human element is crucial to teaching and that students will not be able to learn purely through the use of AI as what is depicted in the Star Trek universe. “AI is not magic and it will not be able to replace tasks that require a lot of creativity or human empathy,” Laurence explains.
Bringing AI back into the teaching realm, can, however, help to automate and remove some of the more mundane and repetitive tasks that a teacher has to undertake. This in turn creates more space and resources for the teacher to focus and value-add to other areas of teaching.
What is Artificial Intelligence Really?
Imagine a machine capable of performing tasks that normally require human intelligence. The idea and theory behind that is what would be known as artificial intelligence.
“It is basically a tool that uses math and is created by humans so that you can use it to help you in your work effectively, whether you are a lawyer, engineer or teacher,” Laurence explains. This means that AI is ultimately the result of humanity’s effort to replicate its own cognitive capabilities in machines.
If AI, despite its human-like capabilities, can never replace the role of teachers, then why does it matter in education today?
Artificial Intelligence in Singapore Education Today
“When learning is done digitally, you are able to gather data such as the length of time a student browses a particular page online, and what are the links he or she clicks on.”
– Lawrence, on how AI can help teachers track their students’ learning behaviour through analytics
Laurence and his team at AI Singapore, a national AI programme launched by the National Research Foundation to anchor deep national capabilities in AI, are currently in the exploratory stages of discovering how AI can be used in the process of teaching and learning in the classroom.
“In today’s literature, how AI is commonly used in education currently focuses a lot on students’ performance tracking,” Laurence shares. By collating and analyzing students’ data such as test scores and results, AI can help to track the trajectory of a student’s performance and detect anomalies or stray behaviour so that teachers can intervene early.
Another way teachers can use AI to help students learn better is the tracking of their learning behaviour through analytics. However, Laurence cautions that this can only be done when learning is done electronically or digitally. “When learning is done digitally, you are able to gather data such as the length of time a student browses a particular page online, and what are the links he or she clicks on,” Laurence explains.
This provides teachers an understanding of the extent to which their students enjoy a particular topic, or how much time they require to understand a topic. This is much like how a website, such as Amazon for example, is able to customize one’s shopping experience online.
“The page that you see on Amazon is tailored to your needs based on your browsing habits and that’s what AI does,” Laurence explains. “In a way, it’s like a recommendation engine or system.” Similarly, AI is also able to recommend to teachers what the next best questions to ask students are to enhance their whole learning experience in the classroom.
Moving from Science Fiction to Reality
As a tool for teachers, Laurence hopes that AI can help remove administrative tasks such as marking. However, he is also aware that some of the biggest challenges in automating marking include the complexities involved in grading essay-based assignments and deciphering handwriting.
“If we can move towards the ideal situation in which every kid has their own devices where homework can be done and submitted online or we are able to conduct electronic examinations, we can automate marking to a large extent,” Laurence opines.
As Laurence and his team work with the relevant stakeholders to develop AI strategies for Singapore classrooms, he also shares that they are, at the moment, only experimenting with different AI ideas to see what works and what does not. “We are still at the exploratory stage. We will not know if an AI idea is feasible until we try it out so right now, we are learning what can and cannot work in the classroom.”
As the education industry gradually begins its march deeper into the world of advanced technology, Laurence hopes that teachers will come together to attend public classes on AI. “We are also happy to head down to interested schools to share with them more about this,” he shares.
As science fiction incrementally moves into our realms of reality in ways more than one can imagine, Laurence once again asserts that the myth of AI displacing humans, especially teachers, needs to be dispelled. “We are already in the AI age and there is nothing to fear. While AI can replace mundane and repeated tasks, the role of teachers themselves will never be replaced,” he concludes.