Sir Anthony Francis Seldon, a British educator and contemporary historian who is also known for his political biographies of consecutive British prime ministers, predicted in September 2017 that “robots will replace human teachers by 2027”.
Since the launch of ChatGPT in December 2022, a deluge of generative artificial intelligence (AI) software that can generate human-like responses to a wide range of topics, have seen the light. Although AI has been with us for decades, the sudden advances and increased capabilities of AI technologies took many people by surprise.
The educational world was not spared. All over the world, students with internet access turned to AI to help with tasks, essays, poems, assignments, coding, drawing diagrams, solving mathematical problems, generating Excel formulas and the understanding of complex concepts and material. The eager adoption of AI by students in the educational environment, eventually led to the question whether AI could replace the role of educators as Sir Anthony Seldon had predicted about six years ago.
Based on the popularity of AI among students, it seems that the possibility might be closer than ever before. With the anticipation that in future, millions of jobs will be replaced by AI, several educators are concerned that it is only a matter of time before they are replaced by chatbots.
Jill Watson, the teaching assistant
In May 2016, Professor Ashok Goel, a computer science professor at Georgia Tech, hired Jill Watson as a teaching assistant. Throughout the semester, Jill answered students’ questions online and assisted them in their learning journey, bringing some relieve to the overworked teaching staff.
But Jill was different and students were amazed at the fast responses that they were receiving from their teaching assistant. Jill was always available at all hours of the day and night. Perhaps you have guessed it – Jill Watson was in fact an AI bot based on the IBM Watson AI system. Goel did not reveal Jill’s true identity to students until after they had submitted their final exams. Jill was so good that students wanted to nominate her as an outstanding teaching assistant. They never realised she was a bot.
Harvard University to introduce AI educators
More than seven years later and after significant progress in AI systems, Harvard University announced its plans to replace educators by AI chatbots in 2023 to teach coding to students. The bot will answer queries, detect errors in their coding and provide constructive feedback. The major benefit of the chatbot is that it is available 24/7 and approximates a one-to-one teacher-to-student ratio for every student in the computer science class. This means that learning can be personalised by supporting students at a pace and in a manner that works best for them individually. When problems or questions will be encountered that the bot cannot address, human lecturers will assist.
The AI paradox
The use of AI in academic institutions may have positive and negative impacts. On one hand, AI could lead to more efficient processes and free up time from teaching tasks, allowing more opportunities for professional development and research. But the flipside of the coin is that we might see displacement due to increased automation, leading to some positions becoming obsolete, as well as a negative impact on students.
One of the concerns of educators is that AI could make the students less proficient and more dependent on AI-driven technology. The answers generated by the bot are also probabilistic and can lead to mediocrity.
AI will not only impact teaching and learning, but also academic research. It is possible that quantitative researchers will be replaced by increasingly sophisticated AI systems. The systems are able to replicate core skills involved in the processes of collecting and analysing quantitative data and writing journal articles.
Then will follow the qualitative researchers due to the human-to-human interaction involved in the research. But at the current rate, AI models will soon develop more compassion and personalised interactions and will thus probably automate qualitative research. No wonder many educators are concerned.
An inverse impact
Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI – the company that owns ChatGPT, stated on Twitter: “AI will cause the price of work that can happen in front of a computer to decrease much faster than the price of work that happens in the physical world.” This is the opposite of what was expected. It was originally believed that AI will first replace jobs that have traditionally been perceived as requiring lower levels of education.
But AI is impacting mostly the higher-paid jobs involving knowledge and creative work such as writing, data analysis and design.
AI will thus possibly replace some educators at the top of the academic pyramid. Lower-paid teaching assistants may end up replacing traditional lecturing staff as the content they previously delivered is created by AI. But institutions will always need some senior educators that provide exceptionalism while chatbots are used for introductory and undergraduate courses.
Students already adopted AI
Despite the concerns, academia has little choice. Whether educational institutions adopt AI in their learning and teaching, students are using AI systems, such as ChatGPT, Canva, Bard, and numerous others to complete class assignments. Whether AI will cause educators to lose their jobs, it is significantly changing teaching and learning methods, curriculum design and academic research.
The conversational and question-answering capabilities of chatbots could be an invaluable asset for large online open courses, where students often drop out due to a lack of engagement with a human instructor. It can help educators provide personalised learning experiences for students and help educators better manage their workloads. We have known for decades that students learn better with personalised learning.
The adaptive power of AI can assess students’ knowledge and competencies, identify gaps, deliver relevant content at the right level, and provide personalised feedback to improve learning outcomes.
It is thus impractical for educational institutions to build walls to keep AI out. It is better to develop new skill sets, expertise and strategies. The use of AI can create numerous new opportunities in education.
Educators have to adapt
As the world of education continues to evolve with the introduction of automation and AI, educators will be faced with adapting their roles in order remain relevant in the academic world. There is no doubt that academic jobs will significantly be transformed by AI.
In the short term, embracing change and innovation will be essential for educators, as AI-driven systems will become increasingly commonplace in classrooms and throughout all aspects of academic practice. Reimagining the role of educators in an age of automation and AI will help them to remain relevant while also leveraging technology to better support students’ learning needs.
Although AI will probably complement rather than replace human educators, educators will keep on wondering if they are necessary. Perhaps it is time to evolve, since AI will not replace educators, but the human who uses AI will.
Professor Louis C H Fourie is an Extraordinary Professor in Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape.