• Dr. Timothy Smith

AI in the Classroom: Progress or Folly?

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The world welcomes millions of new babies every year. In fact, according to the US Census Bureau, around 360,000 babies are born every day. The United States alone produced 3,952,841 babies in 2012. So many new minds eventually need education in schools to become competent, productive citizens. In the US, state and federal spending on education exceeds $620 billion every year, but even with that amount of money, budget cuts and faltering performance continues pressing our school system to improve.

China faces the same problems and has committed significant resources to employ artificial intelligence in the classroom to support teachers and enhance the quality of education. According to an article by Meng Jing in the South China Post titled, “China Wants to Bring Artificial Intelligence to its Classrooms to Boost Its Education System” the Chinese education system suffers from an imbalance in quality with the best schools located in urban centers and rural schools performing poorer. The solution they believe rests with artificial intelligence. For example, one company called Master Learner offers an AI system that can grade papers and tailor its lessons to the individual needs of students no matter where they live in the country.

New AI tools also have begun to emerge in the US. One product called Thinkster Math works with kindergarten through eighth grade students one on one to learn math online with a computer, smartphone, or tablet. According to their website, Thinkster works with students individually to learn math problems, and it helps them when they are stuck, employing different teaching styles tailored by the artificial intelligence to the individual student. Such a product provides immediate help to students that cannot be possible in a traditional teaching environment. Additionally, virtual reality (VR) promises to change the way students experience and learn everything from history to science. Google recently expanded its Expeditions Pioneer Program, which uses its inexpensive smart-phone based viewer to allow children to virtually visit historical places such as the pyramids at Giza in Egypt or Buckingham Palace in London.

Other AI applications in the classroom may need more evaluation before being accepted as useful tools. One example currently being piloted in China uses AI facial recognition and analysis to determine which children in the class are paying attention and which ones are drifting off. The system scores the kids and feeds that information to the teacher. According to an article by Rachel England in engadget.com, the system should prevent children from losing focus in class with the result leading to better educational performance for the students. Such a system may enforce attention, but the question remains whether effective education requires constant rapt attention. In ”Teach Kids to Daydream,” teacher and author Jessica Lahey suggests that daydreaming in students provides an essential part of the leaning experience. She goes on to note that daydreaming fosters creativity and allows children to explore the only space where they have true autonomy—their own mind. Research on attention in college students finds that attention ebbs and flows throughout a lecture, suggesting that it may even be part of how we learn.

The world’s youth need education to become productive members of society and achieve their full potential. The millions of students both domestically and abroad cost billions of dollars to educate, and the education by traditional methods of teacher and student in the classroom produces uneven results with some schools producing better results than others. Developments in artificial intelligence suggest that such systems as Master Learner in China or Thinkster Math will provide personalized tuition to students regardless of their location. It remains to be seen if such systems produce equivalent or better results than classrooms with kids learning together with a human teacher. Moreover, some new systems may produce unwanted affects. The attention monitoring system being piloted in China may sound ingenious at first, but forcing kids to look engaged for the monitoring system may actually interrupt part of the learning process. I suggest that very close research needs to be done on such systems before we ever deploy them in the classroom.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.