Classroom robots – China’s educational gambit poses questions for the West


As China adopts AI-enabled education as part of its national strategy, what might  this mean for the West?

Artificial intelligence (AI) will fundamentally change the nature of teaching in future and will require a radical rethink of the role of teachers in the process.

This was one of the key findings of a panel discussion entitled “AI and VR: Next giant leap for education?” at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha earlier this month.

Jingfang Hao, a science fiction novelist and founder of WePlan, an app that helps Chinese citizens to get the most out of their ‘phone plans, said she believed AI would have a positive impact on education as it would help usher in a more personalised approach to learning. She explained:

AI can analyse learners’ cognitive and knowledge levels and provide personalised lessons going at the right speed for each individual. Teachers can then set up creative workshops to support this learning and organise studies so they’re based on cooperative teamwork.

Another problem the technology could help solve is how to deal cost-effectively with rising numbers of learners entering the education system. Joerg Draeger, an executive board member of the Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany, pointed out:

Education is becoming a mass issue as more people want it around the world. But with that growing mass, there’s also growing heterogeneity. It’s hard for teachers to deal with diversity and mass at the same time and heterogeneity is very expensive so education is becoming more costly. For example, even though students are studying the same things, US studies show that costs are 2.3 times higher now than in the 1970s because class sizes are smaller and more diverse. So the old analogue systems are coming to their limits and AI helps them scale.

In countries such as China, where access to good schools and teachers tends to be limited to urban areas, AI is also seen as a possible means of helping to boost educational attainment in rural districts. Yao Zheng, founder and chief executive of RoboTerra, which provides kits for 10 to 18 year old Chinese learners to build their own robots and learn how to code, explained:

The most exciting thing is if AI teachers can be used to help humans know what they don’t know. Most professions focus on their own areas like math or languages, but it’s difficult for teachers, especially in rural areas, as they’re supposed to be expert in everything. So AI has a role to play in providing fact- and knowledge-based learning and the human teacher can moderate those activities in the classroom.

China’s AI strategy

A key problem when such technology has been implemented in rural districts to date, however, is that few teachers or students understand how to use it. This “cognition gap” means there is “still quite a long way to go”, Zheng warned.

Nonetheless, China is taking the adoption of AI in the education sphere very seriously. The sector already boasts numerous start-ups such as Master Learner, an online system that marks homework and tests. According to research firm IT Juzi, the market is also ranked third behind only medicine and automobiles as having experienced the most change as a result of the technology.

And such rankings are not just idle vanity – a government plan released by China’s State Council in July revealed that AI-enabled education is now part of the national strategy. It is, in fact, a key element of a wider development roadmap that aims to make the country a global centre of AI innovation worth $150 billion by 2030.

But such ambitions and enthusiasm are potentially worrying for the West due to the competitive advantage that AI could afford the workforce of the future – even if China does still has a long way to go to achieve its goals. As Bertlesmann’s Draeger puts it:

To compete in the twenty-first century, we need twenty-first century tools.

By way of contrast with the Chinese attitude though, more developed countries see AI largely as a threat that could lead to potentially devastating job losses, including those belonging to educators. But RoboTerra’s Zheng believes that, although the technology will undoubtedly change the role of teachers, it will far from eliminate them. Instead she is certain that they will remain as important as ever. She explained:

The teacher has to be at the centre – they’re not replaceable. In fact, they’ll have more time for personal interaction with students…Teachers will help learners in the social and emotional dimension of their development and AI will help teachers to evaluate their students more effectively. So it’ll be important to rethink the teacher role, and teaching training will need to change too.

Re-thinking the teacher’s role

Bertlesmann’s Draeger agreed. While about 80% of a teacher’s day is currently spent on transferring knowledge and 20% on catering to their emotional requirements, the balance could end up shifting the other way. As he pointed out:

If you ask a teacher why they chose their job, they say it’s because they wanted to teach children and build a relationship with them. So if technology is used to help teachers deal with the emotional side of things, AI could open up the time they need to spend on relationships and the things that matter.

But the things that matter into the future will not necessarily be traditional academic skills, which “are no longer enough”, according to Saku Tuominen, founder of HundrEd, a Finnish organisation that is researching global innovation in education and disseminating best practice.

Instead today’s academic focus must be supplemented by developing soft skills such as problem-solving, empathy, curiosity and collaboration to help create a ‘growth mindset’ and complement the work of machines that are likely to take over more mundane, repetitive tasks. Tuominen explained:

We should be teaching academic, life, thinking and doing skills…We need to focus on teaching students to be smart in life not just in their grades, which means teaching them to ask questions and solve problems. Many of the jobs available now didn’t exist when I was in school and people have ended up in them because they were hobbies that became jobs. So we need to change education to make learners better prepared – and if they’re curious and can think critically, they’ll be in much better shape for the future.

Dr Amal Al-Malki, founding dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, agreed. But she also believes that the time is now right to start looking at how to foster “digital intelligence” too. She concludes:

We need to teach children to love learning and to carry that on throughout their lives. But we also need to start teaching children how to behave ethically both as individuals and in the digital world around them. It’s about grounding ethics into a technological context.

My take

Although the West may be shying away from adopting AI in an educational context, China is betting its future on the technology as a way to solve key challenges. These include how to provide quality education to 188 million school children in a cost-effective fashion, particularly in rural areas that have traditionally been under-resourced and under-served.

This situation, combined with the country’s enthusiasm for technology of all types, has the potential to put the western workforce of the future at a competitive disadvantage if ways are not found to grasp the nettle and use AI, not to destroy teaching jobs, but to supplement and enhance them.

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