Automating teaching and assessment

George Veletsianos gave an interesting and thought provoking talk to the University of Edinburgh yesterday. This was live streamed and hopefully a recording will soon be posted here.  A good set of rough notes has been posted by Peter Evans on Twitter

Peter Evans@eksploratore

My live and rough notes on #edindice seminar from@veletsianos on #moocs, automation & artificial intelligence at pj-evans.net/2014/06/moocs-…

As he points out, there were three main topics covered by George’s talk:

  • MOOCs as sociocultural phenomenon;
  • automation of teaching and
  • pedagogical agents and the automation of teaching.

George’s involvement with MOOCs started in 2011 when he gave a presentation to the Change11 MOOC, which I blogged about at the time .

I found myself wondering during his talk to the University of Edinburgh, whether we would be discussing automating teaching, if he had started his MOOC involvement in 2008, as this presentation seemed to come from a background of xMOOC interest and involvement. Those first cMOOCs, with their totally different approach to pedagogy, were not mentioned.

I feel uncomfortable with the idea of automating teaching and having robotic pedagogical agents to interact with learners. The thinking is that this would be more efficient, particularly when teachers are working with large numbers as in MOOCs, and would ‘free up’ teachers’ time so that they can focus on more important aspects of their work. I can see that automating some of the administration processes associated with teaching would be welcome, but I am having difficulty seeing what could be more important, as a teacher, than interacting with students.

George pointed out that many of us already use a number of automating services, such as Google Scholar alerts, RSS feeds, IFTTT and so on, so why not extend this to automating teaching, or teaching assistants, through the use of pedagogical agents such as avatars.

What was interesting is that the audience for this talk seemed very taken with the idea of pedagogical agents, what gender they should be, what appearance they should have, what culture they should represent etc. For me the more interesting question is what do we stand to lose and/or gain by going down this route of replacing teachers with machines.

For some of my colleagues, Karen Guldberg and her team of researchers at Birmingham University, robots have become central to their research on autism and their work with children on the autism spectrum. These children respond in previously unimaginable ways to robots. For some there will be gains from interacting with robots.

But I was reminded, during George’s talk, of Sherry Turkle’s concerns about what we stand to lose by relying on robots for interaction.

And coincidentally I was very recently pointed, by Matthias Melcher, to this fascinating article – Biology’s Shameful Refusal to Disown the Machine-Organism – which whilst not about automating teaching through the use of avatars/robots, does consider the relationship between machines and living things from a different perspective and concludes:

The processes of life are narratives. The functional ideas manifested in the organism belong to the intrinsic inwardness of its life, and are not imposed from without by the mind of an engineer. (Stephen L. Talbott, 2014).

Finally, George Veletsianos’ talk was timely as I am currently discussing with Roy Williams, not how teaching and assessment should be automated, but rather whether and if so how, it can be put in the hands of learners.

This topic will be the focus of a presentation we will give to the University of Applied Sciences, ZML – Innovative Learning Scenarios, FH JOANNEUM in Graz, Austria on September 17th 2014.