Human teachers versus robot teachers

M Rokonuzzaman | Published: September 22, 2018 21:07:54 | Updated: September 22, 2018 21:26:49

The percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on education is quite significant across the world. The global average in this regard is 4.73 per cent. Among the countries, Norway is at the top of spending with 7.68 per cent while Monaco is at the bottom with the allocation of 1.02 per cent GDP for education in 2014. Offering quality education at an affordable cost has been a major concern for most of countries. Productivity and quality of education in many countries have been a big concern. Limited availability of quality teachers and the cost of recruiting them has often been a major barrier to address such a pressing issue. Like in many other areas, why cannot we take the advantage of technology to improve the quality and reduce the cost of educating our next generation?

Despite the significant progress of technology over the last 100 years, the basic classroom scenario has not changed much, particularly with respect to the role of the teachers. Many classrooms, even in developing countries, are equipped with a multimedia projector and electronic boards. The multimedia projector attached to a computer has basically replaced a conventional overhead projector. The connection of that computer with the internet has increased the access to content inside the classroom. The electronic board is principally replacing the blackboard or whiteboard. Despite some progresses in technology use inside the classroom, the role of a human teacher, so far, has not been a target for replacement with technology. With the progression of the cyber-physical system in developing artificially intelligent machines, the obvious question that arises is: can robots take over the role of teachers in the classroom? Can we improve the quality of teaching, and also reduce cost with the help of robots? Whether these robots look and behave like humans is a question worth exploring.

The Khan Foundation's prerecorded courseware opened our eyes to the potential of computers and internet to supplement classroom teaching. However, despite the immense usefulness, students cannot practice with Mr. Khan to keep rehearsing until perfection is reached. Particularly, for language teaching in native accent, an interactive rehearsing session is very much needed. Moreover, teaching playgroup students about shapes and objects, displaying physical objects as opposed to showing visuals is found to be an essential requirement.

To take the technology to the next level, there have been reports of experimentation with physical robots in the classroom. Some of the inexpensive robots, which are developed as toys, could be augmented with software, artificial intelligence (AI), and speech capability to behave like teachers. For example, those robot teachers can show different objects and pronounce their names in native voice. With the voice recognition capability, such robot teachers can ask students to keep pronouncing repeatedly until perfection is reached. Moreover, these robot teachers by attaching tiny cameras and face recognition technologies could be made it possible to recognise every student of the classroom. Such proficiency will open the door to developing personal attachment and bond, which are quite useful for touching the souls of the learners.

To take advantage of this technology potential, a Finnish primary school has been experimenting with a Robot teacher-Elias. Elias never makes a pupil feel embarrassed for asking a question and can even perform "Gangnam Style" dance. In the southern city of Tampere in Finland, they are experimenting with a humanoid robot and mobile application. This Robot teacher, Elias, recognises the pupils' skill levels and adjusts its questions accordingly. Experts who worked with the technology for teaching now see it as a new way to engage children in learning. "I think the main idea in the new curriculum is to get the kids involved and get them motivated and make them active. I see Elias as one of the tools to get different kinds of practice and activities into the classroom," language teacher Riika Kolunsarka told Reuters.

To overcome the students' English listening and speaking abilities, Japan has taken a pilot project to deploy robot teachers in the classroom. AFP has reported that the English-speaking AI robots will be helping out in some 500 Japanese classrooms from next year as the country seeks to improve its English skills among both the children and teachers. As reports say, "AI robots already in the market have various functions. For example, they can check the pronunciation of each student's English, which is difficult for the teachers to do," said the official in charge of international education. Further development of this Robot teacher offers a hope to Japanese schools, which are struggling to find qualified teachers for English classes and generally lack the cash to hire trained language assistants.

Human teachers are extraordinarily skillful in strong sensory feelings called emotions. Often such emotion plays a vital role in connecting with students. Despite technological progress, it would be quite a difficult job to give such emotional capability to robot teachers. Although robot teachers in specific situations could be quite useful like repeating certain lessons till perfection is reached, the sense of empathy, sympathy, social understandings or psychological insight present in human teachers may not likely be instilled in robot teachers in the foreseeable future. It's worth noting that due to deficiency of this empathy, robotics in elderly care is facing severe acceptability issue, even in a robot-friendly country like Japan. But AI-powered robot's capability in teaching certain subjects like language could be quite useful.

Does it mean that the days of jobs for teaching in schools are numbered? Well, despite their skills in language and mathematics, however, the robots' inability to maintain discipline among primary school children means that the human teachers' jobs are safe for the time being at least. But in high school teaching where there is a less need of the physical presence of human teachers for maintaining discipline, Robot teachers like Elias may show the real possibility to replace teachers of some courses in delivering selected sessions. Despite some limitations, the rising number of robot teachers in classroom creates pressure on human teachers to improve themselves to stay irreplaceable like before.

M Rokonuzzaman, Ph.D is academic, researcher and activist on Technology, Innovation and Policy.

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