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

What if your favorite teacher were 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?”

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

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