Robot Tutors?

Robot Tutors?
February 8, 2017
Marilyn Brydges

Here at Notebook Tutors, we recently spotted this intriguing BBC article about the possible uses of robots and artificial intelligence in tuition. In the article the BBC describes an experiment using a robotic tutor, ‘Jill Watson’, at Georgia Tech university over the summer. The students who interacted with ‘Jill’ on an online forum were not informed that ‘she’ was in fact an artificially intelligent robot; over the course of the summer, they apparently did not at any point realise that ‘she’ was not a human, but only commented that she responded more quickly than the other, human teaching assistants. Meanwhile Pearson, the education company, is experimenting with a robotic tutor integrated into an online course, which interacts with students by asking them questions and assisting their learning.

For many people, it is short-sighted to discount the potential of technology to enhance education. The entire rest of our lives – from the way we shop, to the way we work, to the way we communicate with each other – has been revolutionised by technology; yet education is in some ways almost untouched. Teachers may have interactive whiteboards nowadays, instead of blackboards; but that is far from a wholesale revolution. Much of teaching still looks exactly as it did fifty or one hundred years ago. It seems unlikely that technology has no further insight to provide or improvement to make in relation to teaching and tuition, so we advocate an exploration of the possibilities of technology in education.

Having said that, however, it is nonetheless clear to us that the value of a good teacher, interacting in person with a class – preferably a small class, and ideally one-on-one – cannot be overlooked or overstated. They can connect with the students, build rapport, manage behaviour, introduce humour where appropriate, build knowledge and skills in the most important areas, challenge the strongest students and support the weakest – and the best teachers can do this all simultaneously. That is the reason that we spend so much time on picking the best possible tutors. Their experience, personal engagement, and combination of subject knowledge with soft skills is something that cannot be replicated by a robot – at least not yet!