How will AI transform SA education in the 4IR?

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” – Malcolm X

The challenge for education today is to re-imagine a future for which we need to prepare our learners. What jobs will exist in ten year’s time? What skills will be required? How do we equip our learners with what they need to be successful for future jobs that don’t even exist yet? AI is here. It’s real. Everyone seems happy to bandy about the term “AI” without much thought as to what it means for us as humankind. How can we ensure that our younger generations of today will be prepared for a future entrenched in the 4IR and the combination of artificial intelligence woven into every fabric of our daily living?

When thinking about how AI can be used as a vehicle to enhance experiential learning and prepare our learners for their future, one must be compelled to ask, “How will AI transform SA education in the 4IR?”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the arrival of AI

In this day and age with the Fourth Industrial Revolution upon us, Malcom X’s quote holds truer now than it ever did before. Successive technology has arrived, and we need to embrace it in every way possible for the advancement of our society and the betterment of humankind. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR, has been preceded by three other technological revolutions. First, there was the age of mechanical production i.e. steam-powered machines. Second, came mass production due to the invention of electricity. After that, the digital revolution began where we saw IT systems being used to automate tasks we once relied on humans to do. The Internet was part of that revolution.

Now, we are entering a new era of the 4IR where technology and humanity converge. Physical, biological and digital environments are beginning to merge and work with each other. Artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, machines that decipher human emotions, skin that repairs itself, houses that look after themselves (check out the Internet of Things) and more. This are just the beginning. AI now sifts through big data, creating algorithms to solve problems we only thought possible in our dreams. AI now controls systems in corporations, assists in engineering and design. AI creates music, processes human responses and reacts accordingly, makes decisions based on vast amounts of input and creates robots that look…well…real.

Let’s bring that into our schools. AI will transform education in ways our ancestors never thought possible.

Is this the end of education as we know it?

The fear of the unknown, or better yet, the fear of seeing the tremendous immeasurable advancement of the technological giant called AI, will bring out the naysayers of doom who have watched too many Sci-Fi movies. They will argue and debate, criticize and deliberate.

How do we prepare teachers for AI-integrated systems?

How do we ensure equity and inclusion whilst embracing AI in education?

And, of course:

Are our educational ecosystems set up to produce the kind of learner skilled enough to work in an AI-centred social society?

Let’s address those issues. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) actually touches on these challenges in their working paper on Education Policy. It is interesting to note that they turn each challenge into opportunity!

How do we prepare teachers for AI-integrated systems?

To the uneducated in 4IR technology, AI is already being implemented in many schools around the world today. Systems are being developed that bring new levels of interactivity across a wide range of subjects from mixed reality applications to fully immersive experiences. There is already a massive drive towards digitisation across all ecosystems, the move to integrate AI is simply just another step. You may find that it becomes the case that the learners are the ones who motivate the teachers to stay connected to technology and use it accordingly. The good news is that the Department of Basic Education of South Africa is implementing a brand new digital curriculum, to be rolled out in 2020, consisting of a robotics curriculum for Grade 9 and  coding for other grades as low as grade R and then moving upwards.

How do we ensure equity and inclusion whilst embracing AI in education?

Don’t put aside the fact that AI is based on machine learning. The point of AI is that it can be ‘taught’ and ‘learn’ from input, stimulus, sensors and feedback. AI in education is going to address all aspects of human dynamics, including accessibility to anyone regardless of who they are. AI can adjust levels of learning for each learner where personalised learning is taking place. AI can provide levels of differentiation for each and every learner in a class where a human teacher cannot (for each and every individual on a personalised basis). There are companies like Carnegie Learning and Content Technologies developing material consisting of intelligent instructional design and creating digital platforms that use AI for assessment and feedback to learners. They are one step closer to making knowledge accessible to all, irrespective of learning difficulties or cultural hindrances. AI can translate speech from one language to another in real-time, or one day it may evaluate the facial expressions of a learner and adjust the level of teaching to match. As AI becomes programmed with more and more empathy, human-like qualities and develops the ability to display those qualities, inclusion will be the norm.

Are our educational ecosystems set up to produce the kind of learner skilled enough to work in an AI-centred social society?

In a future envisioned with smart content; smart systems of content delivery; machine learning; coding and robotics, is South Africa’s present educational reality best situated to prepare learners for that future? Many would argue “No!”. Here, the naysayers may actually have a point! It’s all well and good to talk 4IR and AI and educational challenges. But our South African reality is based on fact. And the fact is that there many schools in the country that are nowhere near ready to prepare learners for a digital future. Simple things like basic infrastructure i.e. water, electricity, sanitation etc. are not on an acceptable level for schools to function properly. A vision of flying cars, robots and AI classes is as feasible as landing a rocket on the sun!

Not the end of education as we know it : Our present reality

Although people are becoming more and more aware of the 4IR and the consequences of its incumbent technology, South Africa is still quite far away from the day a robot teaches a class. As stated earlier, we don’t even have a sufficient infrastructure to serve the needs of our schools and learners. Digitisation does not seem to be a national priority and the use of technology across all subjects is not wholly implemented due to infrastructure restrictions, lack of teacher training, theft or apathy (perhaps fear?) towards the world of digitisation. The 4IR continues with or without us. Can we afford to be left behind if we truly want our learners to be able to compete in a job market dominated by those who truly possess the 21st century skills as identified by the P21 group (now partnering with Battelle for Kids)? In June 2019, the official unemployment statistics of South Africa stood at 29% (see the Stats SA Quarterly Labour Force Survey of Quarter 2: 2019).

Looking to the future

29% unemployment should shake up the nation! Where is education? What of the future of  this country? The future of education and AI provides exciting opportunities if we are to overcome the beast of unemployment and transcend into an era of full technological advancement. So, how can AI help us?

One characteristic of the 4IR and its technology is that of automation, doing things automatically that humans used to do manually. Take assessment, for example. AI can mark exams, create assessments, assess the data derived and draw comparisons. It saves time, creates space for the teacher to focus on the learner and time for the teacher to engage in a more beneficial manner.

But there is far more. Imagination is giving way to the realisation of possibility.

Let us step back for a minute…and just imagine…

  • AI can use software to identify, adapt and provide individualised learning for each and every learner in a class without the teacher having to try differentiate.
  • AI can assess areas of learning that require change or more focus, based on the data it collects from content and classes and then provide useful feedback to the school, teacher or institution.
  • AI can provide chatbots or virtual tutors to assist learners at any time. They will have access to all available resources at the click of a button with customised access and an engaging interface.
  • The algorithms AI employs to monitor our information-seeking habits and how we interact with information, will transform how engage with information all around us.
  • AI could see teachers shifting their roles to becoming more like facilitators.
  • Smart classrooms will be perfect examples of the Internet of Things, using facial recognition sensors to monitor learners for signs of anxiety or depression, or track student attendance at classes etc.

Time to upskill

In addition to the much-quoted 21st century skills list of collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity, lies a platform of further skills development for teachers that we have yet to uncover. Remember, we are speaking in a relatively local context here, South African education.  Teachers will require specialised training to be able to engage and understand the role of AI in the classroom and learning in general. Teachers will need to embrace the fusion of technology into their subjects but along with that they must understand what the role of AI will be and how to facilitate that within their learning ecosystem. Deep learning systems require data, the more data the better the system becomes at becoming “intelligent” – teachers can become facilitators of data input, but need to become skilled operators of the technology involved in making this happen. As AI develops and grows better at providing instant and worthwhile feedback to learners, it can allow teachers to look out for those being left behind by this digital marvel and bring them up to speed on a one-to one basis while the more advanced learners keep going.

Teachers will need to understand the ethics of AI and how to balance the use of technology with humanity. They will need to be able to establish where the line is regarding facilitating and controlling. AI may begin to blur that line and so teachers will need proper equipping in technology to handle that.

What about issues such as language, culture, race, beliefs? AI will be able to ‘learn’ and get better at addressing issues whilst maintaining constant data feedback for teachers to engage with and make decisions. The decision-making process, based on data received, is something teachers will have to be taught.

AI will change how schools are operated and run. Students may be able to choose what they want to learn, when they want to learn it and how they want to learn it. The teacher becomes a guide, a helper and less of a, well, ‘teacher’!

No school left behind!

The future of education remains to be transformed by AI in South Africa, but we are only really at the cusp of change. The digitisation of our education system has already begun. The recognition of the 4IR as a priority and necessity has been made. I am sure that many teachers are very excited to see AI come into the classroom. We have no choice but to change as change is inevitable. Technology will succeed and we must run with it or get left behind. AI will indeed transform education in our country and we will see a new generation of citizens rise up, prepared to tackle the problems with a new way of thinking and new technology to initiate solutions!

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