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Goodbye modh coinníollach, hello Minecraft? The future of education

From robots in the classroom to school tours in VR.

Pepper the robot, speaking to a young girl.
Pepper the robot, speaking to a young girl.
Image: DPA/PA Images

The way we live is changing fast. Every fortnight in our Future Focus series, supported by Volkswagen, we’ll look at how one aspect of everyday life could change in the coming years. This week: education. 

TRADITIONAL PRIMARY, secondary and third level education hasn’t changed that much for most students in the last 20 years.

Sure, there are smart whiteboards instead of chalk and blackboards, and in some cases students work from tablets or laptops instead of books. But all in all, we’re generally still being taught in groups of 25 or so with a teacher at the top of the classroom. Unlike many other sectors, education hasn’t taken a leap forward as technology has improved. But does that mean the biggest changes are still to come?

Education is intrinsically linked with the working world, and going forward it may be even more so. Although it may not always seem like it when you’re learning the Modh Coinníollach, the goal of education is generally to prepare yourself for adult life. But now, the world of work is changing and some of the skills needed previously are no longer required.

Already, AI can do manufacturing work, and will likely take on many more administrative and computational tasks, which will change some of the things we’ll need to learn in school and college.

At the Learnovate conference in Croke Park this week, Learnovate Centre Director Owen White said:

The future worlds of education and work will be very different to those we experience today. The ongoing emergence of new research in psychology and the learning sciences are driving change in the way our society views teaching and learning… In the workplace, artificial intelligence is primed to change the balance of jobs carried out by humans and machines. This rebalancing will precipitate a shift in the skills required by organisations.

Already we’re seeing changes in primary and secondary school curricula, with the roll-out of Computer Science as a Leaving Cert subject having begun in September. The Digital Strategy for Schools 2015-2020 plan outlines how the use of ICT in schools should increase and improve in the coming years. It is also expected that coding will be taught at more primary schools – a clear indicator of how even early education is becoming more linked to the world of work.

How students are taught, as opposed to what they are taught, may also change as new technology and learnings are implemented. Group and project work, which is essential in the workplace, is also impacting classroom layouts and teaching methods. More interestingly, the idea of ‘gamifying’ learning to increase students’ attention and motivation, as well as their ability to problem-solve, is also making headway – in Shireland Academy in the UK, Minecraft has been included on the curriculum.

Source: Shireland Collegiate Academy/YouTube

As we move away from humans doing more manual and administrative tasks, creative problem-solving is becoming a key skill. This is at odds with the way that currently in primary and secondary schools, students follow the curriculum with limited personal choice. But aided by AI and other technologies, teachers will be able to offer students more personalised learning experiences which are tailored to their needs and abilities.

Already, Abdul Chohan’s well-renowned work in the UK with The Olive Tree Free School has shown how technology can be a time-saver and improve the quality of teaching. At the Olive Tree, children aged five and up take photos of their homework and upload it to send to their teachers. The teachers can then look at various parts of the work and give direct voice feedback, rather than correcting copy books, which improves the quality of the feedback.

Even this may change in the coming years, as it’s expected that before long, schools will be able to use AI to mark and grade homework and other classwork, as machine learning and language processing improve. AI will also be able to co-create individual syllabi for students according to their interests and needs.

But while we’ve heard about fears of AI taking our jobs, in most cases – like with teaching – it will play a secondary role. Speaking at Learnovate, Jim Butler of Fishtree said:

Teachers are teachers for a reason. Automation can’t make all the detailed social decisions that are needed in the classroom, but it can certainly help with creating classes, correcting homework, and with students and their parents struggling with homework.

Where the legwork is already done, teachers will have more time to focus on their students individually.

Although teachers won’t be replaced any time soon, it is possible that robots will form part of their back-up support. In Singapore, humanoid robots Pepper and Nao have been working as robotic teaching aides. Nao has even been working at a primary school in Birmingham, where it was used to support children who had autism by helping them to learn social cues. Robots could make social exchanges easier for children with autism by adjusting and simplifying their interactions.

Source: Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering/YouTube

Pepper and Nao are one example of how accessibility to education may improve in the coming years, but as learning moves increasingly online, today more people across the world are able to access as much free education as they could ever need. As access to internet improves both in Ireland and elsewhere in the world, so too will the ability to learn.

The quality of this education is also likely to improve as trainable AI will be able to observe a physical class and then create a template for the online version of the course. This could also include immersive AR and VR experiences, such as those offered by Google Expeditions, which take a class on school tour without ever leaving the classroom. Now that we are living and working for longer, online lifelong learning is more likely to become a requirement rather than an option to keep up in the workplace.

As we know, education and learning are vitally important for making our way in the world. The content of that education as well as the way it is delivered is being impacted by technology and changes in our working lives.

However, it is likely that Ireland will have to mend some of the issues with the system we have currently – which include having some of the largest school class sizes in the developed world, patchy internet access, time-strapped teachers and high costs for parents and families – before we can start to fully realise the benefits of digitally-enhanced education.

More: Live to 120 years old and never forget your pills again: The future of not getting sick>

More: Flying taxis and Ireland’s own ‘supersonic’ train: The future of public transport>

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About the author:

Gráinne Loughran

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