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  • Writer's pictureCarolina MIlanesi

Can AI Drive Education Forward?

This week Bett, the education show that brings together over 800 education providers, takes center stage in London. Educators, developers, and ecosystem players come together to share what is new, connect and learn. Microsoft is the worldwide partner for Bett, but most platform providers and hardware vendors use the event to launch their latest devices and software solutions aimed at education.

As in years past, we have announcements aimed at making life in the classroom easier for the teacher, whether it is about saving time on managing students, assets, or content. Microsoft added new indicator lights at the back of the computers the students are using so teachers can quickly glance at the class and make sure all machines are powered and connected. Google extended the support of Automatic Updates for Chromebooks to eight years to give them confidence that the hardware they invest in will continue not just to be supported but will get renewed through the power of the cloud and software. Teachers are asked to incorporate more technology in the classroom but they are not necessarily given the time to learn and make the most out of it.

How Different Are The Teachers of Tomorrow?

We often talk about Millennials and Gen Zers coming into the workforce and driving digital transformation in enterprises around the world. So far, however, I have seen see very little said about the impact that the next generation of teachers will have on education.

The Economist Intelligence Unit, commissioned by Microsoft, surveyed 1,034    student teachers and early-career teachers around the world to understand what they thought of teaching practices, the role of technology in and outside the classroom, working conditions and resources, and demographic trends of both teachers and students. While Microsoft only shared some top-level data, for now, there are some fascinating findings that current educators who are still hoping for some longevity in their profession should start considering.

Most of the future educators who were interviewed were driven to the profession by very similar reasons as the previous generations: enjoy working with children (54%), making an impact on future generations (46%), make a contribution to society (37%). Not much of a surprise was how the panelists saw technology: 60% of them recognized the importance that technology will play in both teaching and learning.  The importance they attribute to technology is not the mere presence of it in the classroom but rather how technology can be used by teachers to make a difference in the life of the students. For instance, 91% of these teachers to be expect classroom diversity, but only 38% feel they are adequately prepared to teach in a multicultural classroom. There is a critical role that technology can play in the context of multi-lingual classrooms by empowering teachers to use immersive teaching and learning methods such as real-time translation and live captions that build an inclusive environment.

These future teachers are digital natives. They are used to interacting online, exchange ideas and learn through online communities in which technology is a facilitator, a bridge between what they know, what they want to learn and who can help them get there. Technology is seen by 30% of the respondents as an enabler of self-directed learning, while 31% believe technology is responsible for a more engaging learning experience.

The challenges they see, however, in their profession are no different than what teachers are facing today. The most significant deterrents for teachers to enter the profession remain low salaries (45%) and concerns around stress and burnout (45%.)

With such concerns around stress and burnout, one cannot fault brands for focusing on tools that help with time management, paperwork and general admin. Yet when it comes to higher engagement, technology really needs to help drive new teaching methods and this is where I see AI play a critical role.

The Holy Grail Of Personalized Education

For the longest time, schools have been treating kids as if they were all the same. Public schools, in particular, are given an academic plan for the year. A plan that dictates what the children must learn and at what pace as well as how they are tested. This does not favor children who might have learning styles that do not conform. These cases do not have to be extreme, but it could be as simple as being able to accommodate children who are more auditory or more visual learners. Of course, the big challenge of the classroom is that you often have a ratio of one teacher to twenty or more students, which dramatically limits the level of personal attention these children get.

If this is today's scenario, one can understand why younger generations preparing to be teachers are concerned about how prepared they might be for a class environment that includes children who speak different languages and come from different cultural backgrounds.

The way many schools deal with different levels of abilities today both cognitive and linguistics is to take the children out of the classroom. In some cases that is done more for the benefit of the class than the student. This is precisely where technology can play a significant role in designing a curriculum that takes into account the different levels of abilities children might have and help them thrive within the class environment.

OneNote's Live Caption functionality can help children learning in a language that is not their first language as well as children who might be hard of hearing. Captions and interactive transcripts have also been found by recent studies to help with focus and understanding.

Technology can also better bridge school and home, providing tools to parents to better support their children through accessing videos provided by teachers for children who might have missed classes or assistance with writing, reading and even learning presentation skills.

Widening The Borders Of Learning

Teachers, like many IT managers, have also to face the fact that children have access to technology like never before. This means that they have access to a level of information like never before opening up both opportunities and challenges that technology can help exploit or contain.

With so much knowledge that is just a search or a digital assistant question away, children need to understand where the information is coming from by learning how to quote correctly in their work. Microsoft provides the ability to check your work against plagiarism with Copyleaks, making sure that other people's work is appropriately cited. Google takes it one step further this week by launching Originality Reports as part of G Suite , which allows teachers to check students' work against other students' current or previous work. Learning to rely on other people's work to shape your own thinking and opinion and understanding the difference between that and just simply using other people's work is critical and something that will become more and more important as one gets older.

As a homeschool family, I get excited at the opportunity technology offers to educators to widen their reach of people they can touch. The other side of the coin is that children and parents now have a much broader deeper and richer pool of knowledge they can tap into thanks to technology. I mentioned earlier how video could play in bringing classwork and homework closer as well as teachers and parents.

Now think of the role that a tool like Microsoft Stream automatic captions and searchable transcripts with support for eight languages coupled with the power of Microsoft Translator can play in widening the pool of educators we can access. It means we no longer are limited by the language we speak and the place we live in. Either as a homeschooler educator or a parent who gets involved in their kids' homework, we can now look at educators in countries that are ahead of the US in personalized teaching and use their material to help us get there.

A stretch? I don't think so, more a reflection of the boundless world our kids already live in today. Do you think the fact that their favorite YouTuber or Twitch player is in another country and speaks a different language stops them from learning tricks that make them better at Fortnite? If you have a Gen Zer in your home, you know the answer is no, so why should it be different when it comes to learning about science or math?

I look forward to seeing how AI can enable better thinking by helping surfacing data and information. It is not about having AI taking over the role of educators or doing the work of students but rather empowering both with more knowledge, and a basic understanding so their thinking and their learning will get exponentially broader, more diverse and inclusive.

Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.

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