AI's transformation of global education is only just getting started

Anthony Seldon sets out the terms for education's fourth revolution

HAIAN, CHINA - AUGUST 26, 2020 - School children learn about the AI robotic arm. Haian City, Jiangsu Province, China, August 26, 2020.PHOTOGRAPH BY Costfoto / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
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Artificial intelligence finally has the potential utterly to transform education, the field that has lagged behind in embracing the breakthrough technology.

What's coming over the next 25 years is explained in my book as “The Fourth Education Revolution" and will transform education alongside every other significant area of public life, including medicine, retail, business and agriculture.

The first education revolution came about five million years ago and saw the beginning of learning; the second education revolution, five thousand years ago, the beginning of organised learning in schools; the third, five hundred years ago, the beginning of mass learning, enabled by the printing press and the demands of industrial economies.

We are still living today in that third education revolution model, with a mass or factory approach to education that means that children the world over learn the same subjects at the same age and at the same pace, regardless of aptitude, interest or progress.

The system then examines all young people at the same ages with the same blunt exams which offer little scope for differentiation and consigns many as failures.

Artificial intelligence, and associated technologies like virtual reality, constitutes the fourth education revolution. It is already beginning to personalise learning, ensuring that each individual child learns different subjects at their own rate of progress, in ways that engage them most, and offers them individualised feedback.

A 13-year-old student might be at the level of a 10-year-old with their language learning, but at the level of an 18-year-old in their mathematics. The AI systems will allow for each child to move at the ideal pace for them, and to receive personalised comments on their work which optimises their learning.

We need to recognise and understand the immense upsides of AI in education before considering some potentially grave risks which will overwhelm the good if not tackled upfront.

AI can correct flaws of the third education revolution

Get AI in education right, and it will overcome the five chronic weaknesses of the third education revolution or factory model.

The list of failures and flaws includes lack of social mobility; pupils advancing by age not stage of understanding; excessive bureaucratic workload on staff; the failure to develop wider ranges of pupil intelligences including their artistic, creative, personal and sporting talents; and an inability to build student capacity to enhance their mental health.

Helping us get ahead of the risks of AI is the Institute for the Ethics of AI in Education, formed in the UK in 2018, and inspired by issues raised in my book. The institute is global in its reach, and drew on the best minds and education practice internationally.

The interim report was published in January 2020.

Challenges abound, such as responsibility for oversight of the system where human autonomy might be eroded. Confidentiality could be compromised making it hard to ensure AI is both technically robust and safe for vulnerable individuals.

No foolproof system exists to protect pupils from the abuse of AI

Is it possible to ensure AI systems are fair, promote diversity and not discriminate? What about hostile individuals or organisations hacking into the systems, including impersonation.

Can AI be transparent and allow its decisions to be traced and understood by human beings.

Finally, there is the wider societal, human and environmental well-being concerns to take fully into consideration.

Just in March, the Final Report of the Institute made a series of recommendations, including the use of standards marks, co-ordination of efforts to educate stakeholders plus ethical training.

No foolproof system exists to protect pupils from the abuse of AI. Educators will need to be constantly alert to ensure that the use of AI and associated technologies maximises the learning benefits for all learners, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. As fast as AI develops, educators need to be developing their understanding more quickly. It will be a race against time.

We cannot put the genie of AI back in the bottle in education any more than in any other sector. What we have to do is to ensure that all those who have the best interests of our young at heart take the risks from AI very seriously, because only by doing so, will the many and still under-recognised benefits of AI be allowed fully to flower.

Anthony Seldon is the author of “The Fourth Education Revolution“ and is an international advisor for Gems.