What are you doing Dave?

What are you doing Dave?

Evolution, it’s a thing right? Whether or not you believe in the traditional Genesis view or not there sure is much evidence collected that supports old beardy faced Mr Darwin. So much in fact that it’s really tough to find any die hard creationists these days to have a proper scrap about it. How I miss school debating club episodes… Either way, it cannot be argued that a form of evolution takes place in many areas of life and work and lately, with the rapid pace of innovation, we can actually see it happening before our very eyes through the use of ever more powerful, connected and aware technology.

Fifteen years ago no one dared to visualise that we would all be zombie stomping through shopping malls and train stations, eye balls glued to our mobile phones (and evolving another thumb or an oversized part of the brain that prioritizes our Facebook status updates over food or something) but it’s happening and at an unprecedented rate.

At the same time, whole industries and traditionally safe roles are being transformed from how they used to work and be perceived to the point where they may be completely taken over by computers and automated rapidly in the next few decades or even years.


Education is one area where, it’s probably safe to say, technology has made some dents in the ‘ye old school house’ model to date but it has not drastically changed the situation to the point where Mrs Brown the math teacher has been replaced by HAT 9000* (‘’Now children, remember little Johnny’s unfortunate accident in the airlock last week because he forgot to do his algebra homework’’).
However, some recent developments in the fields of machine learning and the rise of Artificial Intelligence point to a future in education where teachers and instructors in higher-ed fulfil a very different role from that of the ‘sage on the stage’ where most currently preside.

In a recent experiment run by a faculty at Georgia Institute of Technology on a Computer Science Master’s programme with a course on Knowledge Based Artificial Intelligence the many students (over 300) were instructed to send any questions they had about the course (sometimes over 10,000 per semester) to one of a number of teaching assistant who would answer any and all email queries as soon as possible.
One of the teaching assistants’s, Jill, was a bit of a slow learner and gave some quite irrelevant responses at times but eventually got the hang of things and was soon one of the most popular responders in the course. Jill was even nominated for a teaching award by one of the students.

Unfortunately, Jill was not eligible for the prize because Jill is actually a bot, an AI (Artificial Intelligence) that analysed over 40,000 answers from previous years running of the course and then developed bespoke answers to student’s questions. Jill, who is based on a technology developed by IBM (Watson) had to be tweaked for accuracy and context early on but importantly, not one of the students suspected Jill was not a real person until it was finally revealed to them at the end of the course.
Now that’s a first class pass on the Turing test.

Jill eventually achieved over 97% accuracy with her moderated answers to the point where the course developers didn’t even need to check the answers provided.

Mind blown right?

There are also a growing number of next generation learning platforms (Fishtree) that have built in, complex, analytics engines that calculate customised learning and assessment paths per learner based on their academic performance and which can accurately predict which students in a class will pass or fail and then can develop its own set of interventions to uplift poor understanding or performance per area. And all without intervention by the lecturer who only has to build the learning outcomes and provide the materials

I can hear HAL and his cousin Skynet cackling maniacally in the background.

Millennials too are themselves changing the face of education through the comfortable ‘always has been’ association with technology (anyone under the age of 22 has never known a time when there was no internet) . No longer is the instructor the sole source of wisdom who can control the flow and distribution of knowledge. Students are increasingly owning their learning experience and sourcing information for themselves in multiple formats, want it gamified, and then collaborating at an unprecedented level. Lecturers and teachers are effectively being shoved little by little off the stage and on to the side where they can only guide learners in their acquisition and mastery of a subject’s body of knowledge.

Furthermore, the recent explosion of interest in the Pokémon GO app that has broken a number of download records and is currently the most used app in its category shows how powerful elements of entertainment and reward can bring about change in younger user’s activities (getting kids out of the living room and into the real world and discovering their cities and towns). Pikkachu doesn’t quite fit the profile of a malevolent AI but then again don’t be fooled by all that cutesy jabbering and cooing.

The take away here is that it’s not time to get a new career if you’re a teacher or lecturer (A separate BBC led study puts the likely hood of teaching professional’s chances of being replaced by a robot at a highly bankable 1%). No, because just as the steady infiltration of technology has given teachers greater capabilities to enrich their learner’s experiences and enabled them to reach a far greater audience they still retain their central role in the spectrum of learning and knowledge transfer particularly at the level where deeper understanding and interpretation is required.

However, in this writer’s experience many faculties still do themselves no favours by not embracing the possibilities or even actively resisting attempts to try to understand the capabilities that can come with a careful integration of internet based content delivery, micro-learning or even the eradication of the hum drum administration that revolves around every part of a teaching role.

There are still many assumptions out there that simply placing content on-line is ‘job-done’ in the eLearning space. And seriously, it really is overtime on the ‘..but we bought an LMS and its doesn’t work!’ playlist. Just imagine the shock on the lecturers faces one day when the LMS demotes them for a bad teaching evaluation!

Its adapt or die time people, particularly if you’re one of the older generation who still thinks the digital textbook and the whiteboard were the latest innovation. Yes, they are old tech now!
Every cavemen knew that a sharp rock was just a tool for cutting a branch or starting the fire. The rock in itself is not the solution and it won’t do the important things for you. The LMS or the originality checker is the rock and they need to be applied, refined, worked on and perfected before they complete their job effectively.

The application of myriad types of online and mobile technology, the acquisition of technical and instructional design skills and the creation of highly engaging learning that students have a personal connection to is more important now than ever. Just like any law or medical professional requires constant learning and development to stay sharp, relevant and up to date so too teaching professionals must continue to evolve and innovate with technology in order to stay relevant, collectively if possible but individually if necessary.

Students are facing their own set of unique challenges in their learning careers so let’s make sure they remain as engaged and academically fulfilled as possible with the humans in charge and keeping HAL and his buddies as the intelligent assistants, not the head of department.

*(HAL 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALogorithimic computer) was the devious AI that tried to derail the mission in Stanley Kubrick’s 1966 opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey)

*** The views reflected in content or links on the Eiffel Corp blog are not necessarily those of Eiffel Corp nor its affiliated products. Eiffel Corp expressly disclaims all warranties, expressed or implied, as to the accuracy of any the content provided, or as to the authenticity of the information for any purpose.

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