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AI and Automation in Education: the challenges and opportunities

Robert Stoneman Published 28 February 2018

In a new policy brief, Rob Stoneman examines the impact of AI and automation upon pedagogy, as highlighted recently at the Bett education technology show


A growing body of research charts the potential long-term impact of AI and automation on the workplace. Recently the OECD found that each day nearly two-thirds of workers use key skills - literacy, numeracy and problem solving - at a proficiency level AI will soon match.This has fuelled concerns many workers could increasingly be forced into poorly paid menial jobs or end up altogether unemployable. Others have remained more positive, arguing that, as with all previous technological revolutions, AI and automation will create more jobs and opportunities than they eliminate.

Which of these realities will come to pass is difficult to say, though it is clear these technologies are here to stay. Yet two major questions remain. Firstly, are education institutions making use of AI and automation to transform how they deliver teaching and learning? Secondly, does the UK workforce possess the skills needed to navigate a jobs market where these technologies are commonplace?

The growing adoption of AI and automation means it is vital the UK workforce has the skills necessary to interact with and exploit these technologies. A recent government report found that AI could add as much as £630bn to the UK economy by 2035, but only if the UK develops a larger skilled workforce. Not only will this require deeper expertise to drive innovation, but also broader lower level skills to enable workers to use these technologies on an everyday basis.

Schools and colleges especially will find it difficult to instil these skills unless budgetary pressures reduce. Poor network connectivity, outdated hardware and legacy software, mean many will struggle to make use of the latest developments in AI and automation without significant future investment. Ignorance of the technologies themselves also remains an issue, in turn stoking fears that AI and automation pose a threat to teachers.

The introduction of the EU General Data Protection Regulation in May 2018 has also stoked concerns over the use of personal data in learning analytics and personalised learning solutions. However, these have been somewhat exaggerated. Institutions will be fine if they are aware of what data they possess, who processes it on their behalf, whether consent is required - much data gathered will be a legal requirement - and why they need it. Indeed, in the event of a breech, the ICO will have little incentive to cripple schools with headline-grabbing fines.

More generally, there remain some in the education sector who are suspicious of AI and automation due to fears they could render traditional teachers obsolete. While these fears are largely unfounded, worryingly they may stifle further discussion over the benefits such technologies could offer in the near future.

AI and automation will not replace teachers, but will fundamentally alter the profession. They will allow teachers to focus on the tasks that cannot be automated or are difficult to automate. Key to this will be the transition from imparting subject knowledge towards a focus on developing social and emotional skills, fundamental for any individual to thrive in the workplace and society. This will be particularly important in a more fluid future jobs market - characterised by the 'gig' economy and the rise of portfolio careers - where new skills are constantly in demand. As such, fundamental skills will become as important as any specific subject knowledge.


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