Many UK universities are struggling financially, but there’s one option that is rarely discussed: replacing lecturers with artificial intelligence (AI) machines. This might sound like sci-fi – after all, the lists of occupations vulnerable to AI rarely include teaching, which is still seen as too creative for computers. But a growing database of information harvested from online courses – clickstreams, eye-tracking and even emotion-detection – could make AI lecturers a common feature in the near future.
Forget robo-lecturers whirring away in front of whiteboards: AI teaching will mostly happen online, in 24/7 virtual classrooms. AI machines will learn to teach by ferreting out complex patterns in student behaviour – what you click, how long you watch, what mistakes you make, even what time of day you work best. This will then be linked to students’ “success”, which might be measured by exam marks, student satisfaction or employability.
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The AI tutor will design personalised learning plans that optimise each student’s outcome. Should one student watch their lecture at breakfast time, or in the evening? Where should their first test pop up in a busy schedule? How much preparation will they need to understand a certain concept? While a skeleton crew of humans would be needed initially to design curriculums (the creative bit) and film lectures (CGI is still too expensive), AI tutors could do the rest.
This might sound a bit far-fetched, and in a sense it is; we’re not quite there yet. So far the best AI can manage is classroom assistance to human teachers. But AI edtech developers are nothing if not ambitious: this month, UK company Century Tech will partner the Flemish regional government to launch AI assistants in schools across half of Belgium.
Until now there’s been one big challenge to wholesale takeover by teaching machines: AI requires vast amounts of data to train on before it can spot patterns. But a large dataset now exists for student behaviour, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of students who have followed MOOCs (massive online open courses) over the past decade.
The big question mark around MOOCs was how they could survive by giving away course content for free. With uncomfortable echoes of recent data controversies, it may turn out that building the training database for AI teaching was the MOOC business plan all along.
But why replace creative teachers with machines? For cash-challenged UK universities, facing slashed tuition income and eye-watering mortgages for shiny new teaching buildings, swapping expensive lecturers for cheap, versatile machines that don’t go on strike, don’t need sleep, and respond to students within nanoseconds will be hard to resist.
But I’m on the side of the humans. I still believe, after 15 years’ lecturing, that teaching is a creative, insightful, collaborative, soul-enriching human activity. This is why I worry that many universities and academics, myself included, may be unintentionally colluding in our own downfall.
Teaching multiple classes to hundreds of students while also leading a research team and chasing funding means I’ve had to make my teaching really well-organised and efficient. Once I’ve filmed a few video lectures I could probably hand over course delivery to a reasonably competent robot.
Meanwhile too many university students already hardly see a human. There’s probably a lecturer somewhere down there at the front of the enormous auditorium, but chances are they’re almost inaudible and spend the lecture pointing vaguely at Powerpoint slides.
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Universities, lecturers and students urgently need to identify and share what is really important about being taught by an actual human. In my university’s recent teaching awards, student voters created YouTube videos explaining how their favourite lecturers had really made a difference to them. That’s not a bad place to start.
Replacing all lecturers with AI is probably still some years off. The ethical and educational challenges, which include AI’s inbuilt biases, the importance of lecturers’ pastoral role amid increasing mental health concerns, and the idea that “consuming content” is equivalent to learning, are so unsettling I’d like to think we wouldn’t let it happen. But I worry that the combined pressures of technology and economics frequently prove irresistible. If machines can replace doctors, why not academics too?
Mark Haw is a senior lecturer in chemical and process engineering at the University of Strathclyde
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