Artificial Intelligence (AI) often makes the list of things that are ‘just around the corner’ in the forthcoming Fourth Industrial Revolution, swiftly followed by ubiquitous connectivity, full robotic automation, and supercomputing for all. And so it is no surprise that people are keen to apply AI to sectors such as education. A July 2018 report predicts that artificial intelligence in U.S. education will grow by 47.5% from 2017-2021. So far, so future.
But AI isn’t just the preserve of edtech startups; established educational behemoths also want to get a slice of the pie, and they don’t come much more behemothic than Pearson. Which is why it came as no surprise to read a Forbes article entitled How Pearson Plans To Automate Education With AI.
We also know a thing about AI and education here at pi-top. Last year, our Chief Education & Product Officer, Graham Brown-Martin, gave evidence to the House of Lords Artificial Intelligence Committee (watch here). He's also the author of this article on the subject. Of Pearson's latest plans he says "once again Pearson conflate education with (their) content delivery and (their) measurement systems. They will, I suspect, be massively disrupted and become the Kodak of Education as we realise that context is king rather than content, and that we need new metrics to recognise the things we value today, rather than the things we might have valued yesterday.”
The seduction of Big Data
Those 'things we value' encompass everything from empathy and understanding to so-called soft skills like leadership and co-operation. Then there’s creativity and problem-solving, both critical for future generations as they tackle issues in the world, their communities and their lives.
So how’s Pearson going to do it? Well, the company’s AI strategy seems to be crunching the huge amounts of data it has from students using already its education software. '[Pearson] is now pulling together data to build software that can automatically give students feedback on their work like a teacher would.’ The problem here isn’t that education is somehow unsuited to AI, it’s that Pearson, and others like them, are applying AI to an already broken and dysfunctional system (and it’s not just AI; you could slot VR or whatever the future tech of the week is in there and get a similar return).
Graham Brown-Martin again; "like a lot of edu-businesses and those wanting to apply AI to teaching, Pearson misunderstands the value of small data and over-estimates the value of big data. The fact is that there is no such thing as an average student or human being, so the utility of big data isn’t as much as some would like to believe, especially when we are looking at something as personal as the learner/teacher relationship.” Indeed the Finnish educator, Pasi Sahlberg, speaks wisely on this very issue too.
Assessment is not a spreadsheet
Here’s another article from Forbes on AI and education that contains the line 'an educator spends a tremendous amount of time grading homework and tests. AI can step in and make quick work out of these tasks while at the same time offering recommendations for how to close the gaps in learning.'
Again, the problem here isn’t AI, it's the assessment and grading, as any teacher will tell you. In fact, don’t take our word for it, take the words of the late Joe Bower, (a teacher from Canada who sadly passed away in 2016 at the age of 37); "assessment has been bastardised into meaning measurement - it’s not the same thing. Assessment is not measurement. I assess my students every single day, but it’s not in what is maybe the conventional sense. Assessment is not a spreadsheet, it’s a conversation.”
Bill Gates famously said that 'automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.’ Pearson is, fundamentally, a content and assessment company, and applying AI to that business model isn’t change and it isn’t the 'future of education'. It’s using technology to maintain the status quo. And if there’s one thing we don’t like here at pi-top, it’s the status quo.
It’s a tricky time for Pearson, as the article acknowledges, and the company has its fingers in a lot of pies. It wants to see itself as the Netflix of Education, but until it puts down the crack pipe of belief in an assessment system delivered by content memorisation, it’ll still be the Kodak of Education in our eyes.