There is not, and never will be, any substitute for the human touch in teaching and learning, but increasingly, technology is taking the strain for teachers.
It is not, as critics predicted, replacing staff, it is simply taking on repetitive tasks such as marking and record-keeping, and proving adept as a learning and assessment aid, freeing people for the empathetic tasks at which they excel.
Any time, any place
When teachers and learners arrive on campus, or log in they can ask a chatbot to check for new messages and run through the day’s timetable. They may also ask for directions to a new campus building, the date of the next staff or tutor group meeting, or when a certain member of staff is free for a chat.
Flexible study and work practices are the norm for learners and practitioners alike. Tutors often lead sessions via an online environment, on or off campus, from home, a classroom or workshop, and learners expect to study at a time, pace and place that suits them.
Virtual classroom networks extend across the UK, connecting colleges, workplaces, teachers and learners in many locations. From these interactive spaces, with their big screens and high-speed, low-latency internet connections, one tutor can demonstrate practical, technical, or theoretical tasks to large cohorts anywhere in the world.
Typically, learning is ‘flipped’ – with learners expected to grasp facts at home and learn how to apply them in class because the interactive tech allows for collaborative work, real-time questions and feedback.
Similarly, video footage from headsets or cameras automatically follows the ‘action’ in live-stream demos by chefs, engineers, hairdressers, or bricklayers. Learners can talk directly to the host, supporting timely queries and spontaneous discussion.
Online sessions are routinely recorded for the benefit of those who can’t attend, those located in incompatible time zones, or who simply want to watch at a time that better suits them.
Meanwhile, virtual reality is adding value to vocational courses. In tandem with hands-on sessions, VR headsets and simulators give learners extra practice in otherwise dangerous or expensive tasks, such as repairing off-shore wind farms.
Full-body ‘immersion’ suits provide a virtual alternative to real-world experience of tricky physical tasks, simulating complex environments such as fire-fighting.
AI supports skills development
Artificial intelligence (AI) is helping learners develop essential soft skills such as collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking. For example, students are developing presentation skills by using an app.
The app, which analyses speech and facial/body language, allows learners to practice as often as they like, when they like, and benefit from personalised feedback. It helps them grow confidence in hosting meetings, public speaking, performing arts, or putting forward ideas in class.
Teachers can monitor progress, intervening only when they need to, making best use of their time.
There’s a balance between human and automated marking. Formative assessment technologies, including for essay marking, are linked to the interactive virtual learning environment (VLE), which uses the AI–derived outcomes to signpost students to appropriate revision or ‘stretch-and-challenge' activities as required.
Data analytics is in widespread use to assess the effectiveness and impact of continuous assessment and to plan learning strategies across organisations.
They do not, however, entirely replace the system of summative exams, which is retained in subjects where remembering large amounts of information is crucial.
With an ‘accessibility-first’ principle, assessment can be delivered in multiple ways, depending on the needs of the learner.
Author detection and biometric authentication is in place for confirming identities and helping provide a secure method for learners to participate in exams remotely.
AI learning for teachers
Sentiment analysis built into interactive classrooms and video conferencing software helps show how learners are engaging. It maps engagement to tutor behaviours, such as body language, movement around the classroom, and tones of voice, to provide feedback on how they can improve.
Intervention and support
Once logged in to the integrated student record and learning analytics system, tutors can see, in real time, which learners have completed tasks set last time, how they did and whether they have taken on suggested further activities or revision.
The same system highlights learners whose attendance or performance has dropped off and may be struggling. Using these alerts, tutors can prioritise contact with learners who need most support. All students will have given their permission for specific data about them to be visible to tutors.
Given the differing requirements and preferences of learners, support is provided in a variety of ways to meet individual needs, often in small groups or through 1:1 contact, in class or online, either synchronously or asynchronously.
A personalised, ethical approach
Now more aware than ever of extracting ‘value’ from their courses, learners expect a flexible and personalised approach to course delivery. They want education on demand, which mirrors how they use tech and consume content in their social life.
This ideal also fits in well with their hectic lives, where learners look to balance work and caring responsibilities with education and mental wellbeing.
What’s important for staff is that the adoption of industry 4.0 technologies hasn’t added to their workload. Indeed, as technology takes the strain, tutors have more time for creative thinking and personal contact with their learners.
Used well and governed by strict codes of practice, technologies like those described are seen as personal teaching and learning coaches, which benefit both staff and learners.
A new report by Jisc has been compiled for universities, colleges and research institutes to raise awareness of the ethics of AI and to combat “unfairness” or “unexpected effects” for students and staff.