Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 1 December 2020

Future of schools: robot teachers, AI in the classrooms but with a ‘human heart’

UAE’s Zayed University gathered hundreds of global experts in k-12 education to map out how the next fifty years might look

The next fifty years of education will feature a greater role for technology. Chris Whiteoak / The National
The next fifty years of education will feature a greater role for technology. Chris Whiteoak / The National

In the next fifty years, schools will likely feature robots interacting with pupils and lessons run by artificial intelligence but technology will not be an effective teacher unless it has a “human heart”, experts said.

School educators “need to recognise that circumstances change” and embrace artificial intelligence and digital applications, heard a global online conference to study the next half century of teaching and learning, organised this month by the UAE’s Zayed University, leading regional institution.

“Technology has been a ‘life saver’ for families, students and education systems in the present Covid-19 context. In spite of uneven access, technology has provided educational continuity in the midst of school closures ... But even with advances in AI they will not replace caring, competent teachers,” said Gopinathan Saravanan, the academic advisor at The HEAD Foundation in Singapore.

Professor Gopinathan
Professor Gopinathan

Samia Kazi, who holds leadership roles at several global early childhood education organisations, said “until recently, teachers may have thought of ourselves separate from AI, and in some ways, even been intimidated by its application to education, especially with young, vulnerable children under the age of 5, but turbulent times have catapulted us to the future.

It is about teaching them what technology cannot; having a human heart, ethics, social-emotional intelligence are skills that the child will have to have when dealing with AI

Samia Kazi

“Here we are coining the terms AI with early childhood education, the day is here when we need to prepare our teachers to understand, monitor, and control AI applications that might be used and applied in early childhood education in the near future.”

“Although this is important, it is about teaching them what it cannot; having a human heart, ethics, social-emotional intelligence are skills that the child will have to have when dealing with AI. Applications for AI open a myriad of issues for future teachers; child protection, assessment of the technology, monitoring any 'decisions' made by AI, and proper implementation, which is developmentally appropriate,” Ms Kazi said.

Technology's role in the teaching of pupils with special needs

This is equally the case when discussing how the teaching of pupils with special needs will evolve. Technology will play a greater role but “the challenge is that these students, like many students without special needs, will always learn and respond better with personal contact”, said Dr Gail Brown.

Dr Gail Brown
Dr Gail Brown

“Technology is becoming more ‘humanised’ in its approaches with AI, avatars and robotics, and some online educational businesses are focusing on this,” she said.

While the global pandemic has brought about the need for rapid change in school education it has revealed stark gaps in access to technology.

“Not all students have access to either technology and/or the internet, so how should we deal with this challenge? Rather than not encouraging or supporting or allowing any student to use technology (a ‘basement’ approach), what can we do support and help those without access to benefit from technology?” said Colin Penfold, a principal consultant at the UK’s Education Development Trust.

Teachers also need maximum support to make the best use of the tools available – both in terms of how they teach and how they develop their own skills – said Mr Penfold.

Colin Penfold
Colin Penfold

“This needs to include how to use technology effectively in ‘face-to-face’ classroom teaching, but also how to use technology effectively when teaching remotely.”

Collective efforts towards the next 50 years

The College of Education at Zayed University held its 3rd Annual Education Conference online on Monday 9th November, with the theme ‘Zayed’s Legacy: The next 50 years start now’, gathering about 500 researchers, academics, teachers, and field experts online.

The conference was held in the presence of Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth and President of Zayed University, Hussain Al Hammadi, Minister of Education and Jameela Al Muhairi, Cabinet Member and Minister of State for Public Education.

"Over the next 50 years, the UAE aims to adapt to and be an effective partner in creating the best educational models and technologies in the world and in applying the finest early childhood educational systems," Ms Kaabi said.

"Moreover, as we collectively work towards our country’s Centennial Plan of 2071, the UAE aims to set a multidisciplinary educational system that ensures producing creative talents and evolved mechanisms that help make professionalism and positive moral values the cornerstones of our operations.”

The conference provided a platform for the region’s researchers, practitioners, administrators, and academics to share, collaborate, and explore innovative approaches to creating successful teaching and learning environments for students. School teachers, professionals and education leaders worked to build stronger partnerships for the advancement of K-12 education.

Eighteen online sessions and workshops were held, including in multilingual language acquisition.

Zayed University’s conference partner the non-profit Arab Thought Foundation shared its expertise in empowering youth and efforts to modernise the teaching and learning of the Arabic language.

Arabic language has shown its 'rich culture'

The teaching of reading, for example, “has already changed, and will continue to change over time,” said Dr Brown, a leading expert in the field of reading.

“I hope that such technology supports the maintenance of the many, diverse and rich languages that already exist.”

This applies to the teaching of the Arabic language also, she said.

“The Arabic language is rich in culture and local dialects, and these have withstood the pressure of time and technology,” she said.

Prof Gopinathan said that while "opportunities and challenges change, these changes may be sudden or evolutionary … in the history of education systems we note these changes … education systems are inherently conservative.”

“Change however, is possible if government policy makers are able to formulate a compelling argument for why change is necessary, how it will contribute to greater societal resilience, provide employment opportunities for young citizens,” he said.

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Updated: November 29, 2020 03:24 PM

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