ALEX, the virtual reality teacher. What if your favorite teacher was a robot?

Students interacting with "Alex," a virtual instructor. | Photo: The ArticuLab.

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What if your favorite teacher was a robot?
Miles Sandler
Director of Engagement, Public Affairs Kauffman Foundation

What if your favorite teacher was a robot?

The question isn’t, "Can artificial intelligence replace a human teacher?" It can. The technology is here. The question is, "How can professional development evolve to create a pipeline of exceptional educators that AI will aid, rather than replace?"

What if your favorite teacher was a robot? #RethinkEd

Earlier this year, I witnessed a scene out of science fiction, had it not been reality.

A video shown at the NewSchools Venture Fund annual conference showed a young African-American girl answering a teacher’s questions with confidence, enthusiastic to get them right. The girl was real, but the teacher was not. She was a virtual instructor named "ALEX," powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). The virtual being was programmed to use an African-American dialect. The video clearly demonstrated the child’s improved responsiveness because of this cultural relevance, reacting significantly different than another child whose virtual teacher only spoke standard English.

For many in the audience, witnessing this video emphasized the growing need for more educators of color in the classroom. This is certainly true since the study showed significant gains among the children that interfaced with the culturally-relatable teacher.

However, for me, seeing how this child reacted to the virtual being as if it were alive raised troubling questions about the role of educators in the future. If AI-powered instructors were readily available and perhaps even more responsive to students’ needs, will we even need humans?

I do not raise this question lightly. My father was a teacher – one of those magical teachers who could bring every topic to life. He would work countless hours to craft hands-on lessons and group projects that would engage and inspire, often weaving multiple subjects into one seamless class. In second and third grades, I got the rare advantage of being his student, which shifted my educational trajectory from being a student with learning disabilities to a student who could learn. I remember him bringing in a local writer who inspired me to take up poetry. He took our class to graveyards to explore history firsthand, shared books from authors of culturally diverse backgrounds, and gave us inquiry-based learning projects exploring real scientific challenges.

The brilliance of my father does not give me hope. A few exceptional teachers that defy the status quo will not address our growing need for more. From 2009-2014, 35 percent fewer people enrolled in an educational pathway to become a teacher. So, should we at least consider alternatives?

AI: Alternative Instructor

Scientists have identified that our brains (and especially children’s brains) react to stimuli in virtual scenarios in the same ways our physical bodies react in the real world. Virtual reality experiences have been shown to trigger empathy, address racial bias, and even change behavior. The little girl on the video may have recognized at some level that the virtual instructor was not a real person, but her brain was reacting as if a real-life teacher had asked her a question.

So, with the capabilities of new technologies increasing exponentially, is it so far-fetched to think that AI could change teaching or replace teachers? The UNESCO Institute of Statistics projects the need for 24.4 million primary education and 44.4 million secondary education teachers by 2030 if every child in the world is to be provided education. AI proposes a possible solution that could give all children across the globe their own interactive, brilliant, personal instructor. Theoretically, through "machine learning" these personal instructors could identify specific learning challenges each child is facing and adapt the lesson accordingly without having any distractions or personal bias.

AI: Ability to Inspire

However, many experts don’t think that AI can replace teachers. The technology is not advanced enough to cover all the social-emotional nuances of a classroom or the slight hints of learning difficulties a child displays. Teachers can also do something else machines can’t do: They can inspire. We humans evolved to mimic and model ourselves after others. This key to human development plays out in our classrooms every day, as children watch and learn from their teacher’s instruction, but even more so from who they are as people.

So instead of the teaching force being replaced by robots, perhaps AI can supercharge the classroom with functionality that allows teachers to focus on the real challenges and opportunities. Programs like Gradescope or WriteLab that can provide faster grading and corrections back to students, taking those tedious tasks off the teacher's plate. Or Earshot, a learning tool for educators that analyzes a teacher's lesson by identifying open- and closed-ended questions, the wait time after asking a question, and the length of time a teacher lectures. Technology can even indicate if a teacher has preferences in responding to a specific gender or favoring certain children over others.

AI: Authentic Involvement

Portrait of Miles Sandler and her father
Portrait of Miles Sandler and her father. | Photo courtesy of Miles Sandler.

In this approaching future, how can teachers be prepared to navigate such a different reality? Teacher preparation programs have remained primarily the same, grounded in education theory but rarely providing immersive learning experiences, except for the compulsory student teaching year at the end of the educational program. Residency programs, like the Kansas City Teacher Residency, have provided a significantly better model, placing pre-teachers into master teacher classrooms from the beginning, providing the opportunity for education theory to play out in real-time through tangible experiences.

The stagnation of teacher preparation programs does not encourage a shift in the education paradigm. Students of today and tomorrow need to be able to problem solve, think creatively, work collaboratively, and be continuous learners. To achieve these shifts in mindset, skills, and abilities, students need teachers that can create a new type of classroom. A classroom not designed for students to compute and regurgitate information on a standardized form but instead to be immersed in learning that develops deep connections to the subject matter.

My father was just one of many exceptional teachers that understood the art and the craft of teaching. Throughout his career, he identified that his training did not fully prepare him for the classroom, and drew from his passion and life as his training ground. More teachers are coming through the ranks being taught dry theory and lacking authentic student-centered training and preparation with new technological tools. These thousands of teachers can be exceptional too, if given the right tools.

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