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How Bot Teachers Will Disrupt and Improve Education
(T)his will be hard for some teachers to swallow, but the reality is that some teachers are better than others and that some teachers “check out”..Bot Teachers will use the best practices 24/7 and..
We Needed Teachers, Not Just Information
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Information has been widely and either freely or cheaply available for a long time. First, it was accessible in libraries, and now it is available at the click of a button on the internet. Sometimes it requires a few dollars to get past a paywall to access it or to buy a book on Amazon, but most people have been able to access the material they need to learn without any major barriers for a long time.
So then, why did we still need teachers and schools?
We needed teachers (and professors) to teach the content to students and for schools to provide social and emotional support for students’ lives, as well as some basic structure.
The latter will still be needed, but AI Teaching Bots (AKA Bot Teachers) will soon be able to do a lot of what teachers do and do it better. That’s just a reality.
What Do Teachers Do Now?
One of the main things teachers do is take available content and teach it to students.
What does this involve? In grades 7–16+ (this essay is generally about grades 7 and above), teachers take content that is usually largely prescribed in textbooks and curriculum sets they are provided and teach it to the students. At the university level, they are doing the same thing, but professors have more control over the content. For example, you’ll find a lot of similar content in courses such as the Introduction to Theories of International Relations at most universities, but professors aren’t required to teach out of a prescribed text.
Teaching involves sequencing the content (although this is also largely already done by curriculum companies in K–12), developing lectures and PowerPoints, developing activities, developing assessments, working to find areas where the students as a group lack understanding, troubleshooting misunderstandings with them, helping individuals develop a greater understanding (teaching and tutoring them).
Today’s teachers are instructed to work extra hard to differentiate that instruction for individual students and to build dynamic and engaging lessons for classrooms of anywhere from 15 to 30 students (US) and often many more (50 to 100) outside the US.
At the beginning of the academic year or semester, all the students start in the same place and are expected to largely learn the same content, culminating in a final test or project (the project usually being an essay or paper, especially at the university level) that demonstrates some level of mastery of the content.
What can Bots Do that Teachers Can’t?
Start the year where students left off. Imagine the student who got an “A” in algebra but still didn’t demonstrate an understanding of a few key concepts she will need to learn geometry well. A teaching bot can know that and either (re)teach the concept to the student before the school year formally starts or right before they are taught the lesson on the geometric concept the student needs to understand to advance. The Teaching Bot could even integrate it into the lesson on that concept.
Meaningfully differentiate instruction. There are so many ways AIs can differentiate instruction beyond what any teacher can do: it can adapt readings to students IQ levels; provide culturally and geographically appropriate examples students can identify with; pace moving on to students’ understanding; use vocabulary the student already knows while integrating more vocabulary at an appropriate pace; push more content to students who master particular content at particular times.
What Can Bots do Better than Teachers?
Engage students. This is hard for teachers to hear, but most teachers know they struggle to engage students. This was true before the pandemic, but it got worse after the pandemic. Most people blamed the pandemic for a lack of student engagement, arguing that students simply didn’t want to sit in Zoom-style rooms all day and that they would re-engage when they returned to live school. It is correct that students prefer live school to Zoom rooms, but the reality is that student social media use soared during the pandemic (and generally expanded (especially Tik Tok) across all age groups (Statistica)). Ninety percent of teens in the US currently have or use social media (Walters), and screen time has increased by seventeen percent over the last few years (Moyers). Social media companies know how to engage teens and young adults, and so do video game companies (Christofferson).
In education, AI-driven systems have been shown to increase motivation and engagement (Xia et al; Lin & Chang). This contrasts with disengagement we are currently seeing in the live classroom (Young). If we want to re-engage students, we should look to those who are experts at student engagement. It’s hard to admit that we aren’t the experts, but others are simply more qualified.
Teach the way the best teachers teach. Again, this will be hard for some teachers to swallow, but the reality is that some teachers are better than others and that some teachers “check out” or “quit quietly” (Zinkula). Bot Teachers will learn not only the best practices of the most successful online Bot Teachers (they’ll have instant data and continuous recorders of effective approaches), but they'll also be able to adapt those best practices to individual students.
Be available 24/7. Bot Teachers can teach students any time of day or night.
Produce interactive, dynamic content in seconds. It takes teachers a long time to generate interactive and dynamic content. Bot Teachers can produce lectures and PowerPoints, develop activities, develop assessments, work to find areas where the students as a group lack understanding, and help individuals develop a greater understanding by tutoring them. They can do it in seconds and potentially share it across millions of users (and adapt it to each one).
Be patient. Teachers are a very patient group of people, but even the best get frustrated and sometimes lose their patience (at least I have). Bot Teachers will never do that.
Provide immersive learning experiences. There is a lot of debate about the future of the metaverse, but one of the things that is holding it back now is the difficulty of using the headsets for any period of time (20 minutes), but as we move toward augmented reality and “spatial computing,” engaging and immersive environments will become the norm and more difficult for teachers to compete with. They already can’t compete with social media.
Provide a printout of what someone knows. Imagine at the end of high school or university that students do not just receive a diploma but also a “print out” of everything they’ve learned in more detail and could share with an employer. In that way, the degree becomes even less relevant, but that set of skills becomes essential. Bot Teachers will be able to do that and this will be more meaningful than any diploma.
Understand the content they are teaching better. In a conversation with Mo Gawdat, Steven Bartlett points out that people came to their podcast to learn about AI, but that in the future people will learn from bots that are 45 billion times smarter than them and that it will no longer make sense to learn from humans but to learn from machines that are smarter. This also applies to school.
How Might Bots Engage Students in Ways that Might Make us Uncomfortable?
As discussed, companies with an AI background, such as Meta and Tik Tok have a strong ability to keep students engaged (even addicted). Some of these approaches may seem undesirable, and in this context it will include creating beautiful (based on the user's idea of beauty) Teacher Bots who engage students in intensive ways to sustain their interest. There are no regulations in this area and this may upset schools.
What Bot Teachers Won’t Be Able to Do for a Long-Time
The focus of this essay has been on teaching students content, which is a core function of education, and the key function we often highlight. Bot Teachers are going to be very good at this. What Bot Teachers will not be able to do is organize school trips, decide what content students need to know, facilitate connections between students and adults, provide supervision (although some intensive AI-based surveillance systems can do that well), and determine the overarching goals of education. Educational administrators and teachers are still needed for this.
Many argue that only human teachers will be able to provide the social and emotional support students need. This may be true, as the frontal cortex of the brain, which current AI systems attempt to mimic, focuses on reasoning and prediction abilities and not the emotional side of the brain. Talila Millman argues that schools are essential for social learning, peer discussions, accountability, building relationships and hands-on experiences.
This is true, but companies such as Replika are developing applications that enable humans to develop relationships with the bots, as the bots are able to use language patterns that mimic human language use in a way that supports relationships. In fact, many people have fallen in-love with bots.
Chen et al argue these systems should be “human-centered” and have the capabilities to understand individual learners’ “prior experiences, needs, interests, relevant emotions, and social structures…”
There is considerable debate as to whether or not these systems can replicate the human/emotive side of teaching (see the references below) but these systems will work hard to simulate that human connection and many will accept less of a connection given the relative costs.
Whatever is lost by the human connection, has to be balanced against these realities -
Tertiary education is incredibly expensive and simply paying for an emotive connection will be a high cost. Similarly, all students cannot afford a human tutor at human labor prices; those that do have a big academic advantage.
All teachers and professors do not have strong emotive connections to students.
New AI models are helping bots build emotive connections with students (Hsu).
Bot Teachers will likely be able to personalize instruction more than any given teacher (Muzadkis).
There is a debate about this; but Luis von Ahn, the founder of DuoLingo believes AIs will eventually be better teachers (Chocano). It will certain be better than at least some teachers. Victory XR is offering courses taught by a “Teacher of the Year” finalist. Don’t we want all our kids taught by the, “Teacher of the Year.” Would you prefer your child is taught by someone with their foot halfway out the door?
Bot Teachers will eventually be smarter than all of us, and that probably isn’t that far off.
Bot Teachers have to teach one student. Teachers teach classes of 15-100.
Bot Teachers will always have the most current knowledge possible related to their subject matter and teaching practices.
Numbers 1, 4, 6, 7, and 8 are true regardless as to how awesome any teacher is, and many are totally awesome.
What Does this Mean for Schools?
Expect more. My son had a math tutor for two years. His individual tutoring was so effective that it propelled him an entire grade level and a difficulty level ahead in math. Students can learn more and faster with individualized instruction/tutoring, and schools should either expect them to do so or let them have more free time. Tutoring does have a huge impact on learning, and Bot Teachers will accelerate this (Sawchuk).
The current studies are, of course, based on human tutors, but as will be explained, Bot Teachers are able to do what many human teachers can do and initial surveys show both students and parents prefer even basic AI tutoring systems such as ChatGPT to human tutors. And this is before this technology is integrated into dynamic teaching systems that are tailored to each individual and are trained on particular content so as to not hallucinate. (Nearly) all of the known weaknesses of today’s bots will disappear in these systems. And no teacher is perfect/fails to ever “hallucinate.”
Offer more learning opportunities. My son’s school is small and cannot offer every AP course. Students, however, can take additional AP courses online. The fact that the live human teachers are only accessible online during the day still places limitations on this, despite how well it works. Imagine if the course was taught by a Teaching Bot and he could take a course at any time. Imagine that one day he wanted to engage it for 2 hours in the evening and then 20 minutes on a Saturday morning. Imagine he could be taught whenever he wanted. Imagine that he’d take the AP test after his Teacher Bot though he was prepared based on its record of his instruction and a determination of what he learned.
Experiment with integration. Although students will likely be taking courses from bots soon for their own learning purposes, it’s too early for schools, especially public schools (they are heavily regulated), to begin using this technology for Teaching Bot-led courses as more evidence will be needed to support their effectiveness and policies will need to be formulated regarding their use (Tlili). Schools could, however, start integrating the chatbots into classroom instruction, so they will then be prepared for the next level: offering courses, likely starting with electives that are taught by chatbots. ignificant research (Adiguzel) demonstrates positive academic outcomes from engagement (Chen, Chuang et al (VR); Goodwin-Jones et al VR; Kuhail) and greater student motivation (Ali).
Acknowledge that students will be in radically different places. Over the last decade, and especially over the last five years, many of the most ambitious students have taken advantage of online learning to both take courses that aren’t offered at school and to help them excel in their in-school courses (take biology over the summer before they take AP biology at school). These students, and now more students who will be able to afford these options, will be taking these courses and using online teaching bots as teachers and tutors. This will put them dramatically ahead of most of their classmates. Kids who are driven will catapult ahead; those who want to be mediocre will have no skills in this world.
Acknowledge that the role of the teacher will change. Teachers will not need to be content experts. While some content knowledge will be useful, especially over the next few years as these systems ramp up, Bot Teachers will know the content as well or better than most teachers. In this world, it seems that certification needs to be in coaching and facilitating individualized learning rather than in content. This will change who will want to teach in many instances (some history teachers love teaching history, for example), but this may be good: a premium will come on the ability to coach students.
Get it together. There needs to be synergy between 9-12, 13-16+ and workforce training programs (that industry is rapidly accelerating):
Kyle Hartung, associate vice president, Jobs for the Future:
In an economy being transformed by technology that we cannot even predict in two, much less 10, years, it is clear even now that our education systems must move much faster to connect young people to the labor market so that what they learn does not become obsolete by the time they’re “ready” to enter the workforce and that they become skilled and adaptable lifelong learners while working and earning. We would advocate for a series of course experiences that blur the lines between secondary, postsecondary education and training, and careers, that are awarded credit based on the development and demonstration of competencies, the data for which are owned by learners themselves through, for example, digital learning and employment records (LERs).
The early part of the course series would be structured to provide iterative opportunities for learners to identify and explore academic and technical subjects of interest to them, learn about career opportunities that are related to those subjects, and via direct participation in the workplace—learn about the world of work through increasingly complex and rigorous experiences that is at times directed and supported by others (e.g., teachers, mentors, supervisors) while at others entirely self-directed.
I think I said the same thing above about records that follow them. If you were a business owner, would you rather hire someone with this transcript or a general high school transcript with a list of grades?
When are the Bot Teachers Coming?
The Bot Teachers are already present to a degree, with students already using systems such as ChatGPT for tutoring. Khan Academy already has ChatGPT4 integrated into its publicly available tutoring programs. Baidu in China has integrated an English tutor into its new phone for students (Feng). Giglish offers tutoring in 16 languages (HT Tech).
These tutors are also integrated into its Khan Lab School, though that’s entirely focused on tutoring that occurs within a classroom led by human teachers as a supplement rather than the entity leading the instruction.
So, the tutor bots are already here. The question is, when will we have Bot Teachers that can teach full courses?
Bill Gates says tutoring systems will be able to teach kids to read in two years (Huddleston). When bots are able to teach courses from start to finish, which will be relatively soon, we’ll have Bot Teachers. Two former Microsoft employees started Maximal Learning that appears to have this goal in mind (Soper).
Given how regulated public education is, it will be a while before these courses are offered in public schools, but private schools could potentially offer them as electives. Regardless, unregulated companies that operate in the private tutoring space and are trusted by parents (often more than they trust schools) will soon be selling very inexpensive courses to parents that are taught by Bot Teachers and while they may not meet regulatory standards that govern public schools, it won’t matter because millions of kids are learning as much more outside the public school system, even where there is no regulation at all. Students will take the knowledge and skills they learn in these private sector courses into the workforce.
What Does This Mean for Education Leaders?
By “education leaders” I mean those who make education policy makers and all those who are involved in any top-level education decision-making.
Adapt learning standards. I have written more about this elsewhere, but, at a minimum, we need to raise learning standards/goals across all content areas, as students taking advantage of AI Bot Teachers (and even just tutoring bots) will be able to learn significantly more than those in general classroom settings.
Give second chances. The high school and college drop-out rates in many parts of the world, including in the US, are high. Students should have the chance to study with bots and take exams (the Regents in New York, for example) and graduate. I anticipate that students could earn passing grades on these exams with a fraction of the invested time if they learned with Bot Teachers.
Allow experimentation. We are at the early stages of this, and while we know Bot Teachers will be able to provide instruction, and this will start happening in the private non-school education space and in developing countries where existing schooling is inadequate. This will lead to the rapid acceleration of these systems outside of schools and if schools want to survive they need to accept this reality. Soon, Bot Teachers that are millions of times smarter than current teachers will be able to instruct students better than human teachers and provide verifiable certification that those students possess a set of skills needed to succeed in particular careers.
One of the core functions of education is transmitting knowledge that exists in paper or electronic form and getting that information into the head of another individual, usually a younger person. This is a multi-trillion dollar industry. In the near future, this will be done as well or better by Bot Teachers. Schools, school administrators and all educational leaders need to prepare for this future and start thinking about how the role of the teacher will change and making plans to support teachers in that new role.
Thanks for reading Education Disrupted: Teaching and Learning in An AI World! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.