The Future Of EdTech – When AI becomes the teacher

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EdTech is one of the fastest growing technology sectors in the world right now, with companies including Amazon, Google, Goldman Sachs, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (Mark’s investment fund) all contributing heavily to the $50B+ industry. In the first ten months of 2017 alone, investors staked $8.15B in EdTech companies. NewtonX conducted a series of 10 in-depth interviews with experts from companies such as EdTech Google, Byju (an Indian MOOC), and Yuanfudao (China’s first edtech unicorn), which revealed that there is a massive untapped market for EdTech in developing countries, as well as an opportunity in the U.S. and Europe for kid friendly software and smart learning tools.

The consensus from NewtonX EdTech experts was that by 2020, 5% of American kids’ talking time will be with a machine, and classroom learning will increasingly include edtech software. While the market is large, though, there are dangers of an AI-powered classroom that will inevitably interfere with the rate of adoption.

The biggest risks: educating kids, or educating robots?

In 2017, Anthony Seldon, a British education expert, declared, “Robots will replace teachers by 2027.” While this bold claim is hyperbolic, according to NewtonX experts, Seldon has a point worth noting: over the next decade, education — particularly in developing regions — will be at a minimum enhanced by, and at a maximum run by, AI.

There are numerous risks with AI-powered education. On the one hand, there’s the fact that what children learn in school is not just relegated to academics; they learn respect, social norms, how to treat teachers, and how to work together in groups. On the other hand, there are problems with the power structure inherent in AI: it learns from its users — but learning from children is not a good way for a teacher AI to function. These are the top three concerns, and how companies are addressing them

1. Kids abusing AI teachers

Because Amazon’s Echo responds to verbal commands, it proved to be a hit with families. But parents soon found that their children tended to abuse Alexa, using straightforward syntax, eliminating social niceties (please and thank you), and yelling in order to be heard by the speaker. Amazon has since released its Echo Dot Kids Edition, which includes a smart assistant built for kids and a suite of kid-friendly content.

AI-powered teaching products will need to be tailored to what we want children to learn: manners, social cues, and critical thinking. Instead of AI being reinforced by humans, AI teachers will need to reinforce behavior in humans. It will need to reward children for asking nicely, and help children engage in critical thinking.

While many skills-based programs (such as CodeMonkey or TeachMe: Kindergarten) don’t need to include the social elements that students are taught in the classroom, if AI is to become a bigger part of young children’s educations this is certainly something developers will need to consider.

2. Kids becoming too technology dependent

The democratization of information is one of, if not the best thing that has come out of the fourth industrial revolution. That said, giving children the answers is not always the best way to teach them.

Gamified learning programs use AI to adapt to children’s individual learning styles and promote finding the answer over guessing it. But in the event of a “robot teacher” the interplay between helping and giving could be more difficult to navigate. In fact, there’s not very compelling evidence that most gamified learning programs are as effective as teachers are at helping students learn basic skills. A 2017 New York Times article on the subject revealed that DreamBox, a math teaching program that uses an algorithm similar to that of Netflix to tailor content to its users, has not convincingly proven to be any better than teachers, and has anecdotally proven to be somewhat addicting for children.

While giving children access to the wealth of knowledge contained in the Internet is, at its surface, a good thing, it has the propensity to diminish students’ skills and self-sufficiency. Sure, everyone has a calculator and Google at hand these days, but there’s still something to be said for analytical thinking and problem solving.

3. Privacy

This is a massive concern for many educators and parents today: when children interact with AI, how is their data being used? Who is it shared with? How long is it stored for? A primary concern of educators is that student data is used as a digital print of every person that can then be used in law enforcement, or even job candidacy.

As EdTech becomes more commonplace, providers will need to ensure strict privacy adherence and transparency.

The Outlook for EdTech is Strong, But Not Without Caveats

Certain futurists have proposed that classrooms be equipped with movement recognition technology, eye tracking, and language processors, in order to inform teachers on how to personalize education for how each student learns. Teachers could have data on students’ diets, their sleep deprivation, or their stress levels.

While some institutions have embraced this idea (such as AltSchool), the majority of classrooms will not be impacted by AI in such dramatic fashions. Instead, much of the development and investment opportunity in EdTech will be in continued learning programs, kid-friendly tablets/computers/smartspeakers, and gamified learning programs, particularly for teaching children coding skills.

While much of EdTech can sound dystopian, the reality is that children today need to work with technology and computers to be automation proof as adults. Technology literacy is a skill, an essential one for children to learn.

Because of this, while EdTech does have a place in the U.S., there’s more demand and potential for it in developing countries (where tools like Chatterbox, an online language school powered by refugees give access to education to people who otherwise may not receive it), and in countries where there’s massive demand for scalable education.

In China, for instance, EdTech is expected to grow 20% annually according to a robust NewtonX survey, in large part because of the young population (29% of the population is under 24 years old — roughly 450M people) and the cultural emphasis on education and technology advancement. The U.S. market will advance at a slower rate, but will nonetheless be part of the global shift toward EdTech.

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Germain Chastel is the CEO and Founder of NewtonX.

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