AI and the chatbot to the rescue: private tutoring and a teacher’s aide

File Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

File Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Published May 8, 2023


by Alison Scott, Executive Principal of Bellavista School

Outcomes based education (OBE) was perhaps the vision of informed, relevant and forward-thinking educators, and its successful implementation in South African schools in 2005 might just have positioned our systems to step into the revolution that is artificial intelligence (AI).

The vision of OBE was to demand of teachers that their learning be lifelong and they facilitate and lead inquiry in their classrooms, developing skills for cognition that would personalise learning in a contextual environment.

Teachers countrywide vehemently dismissed the philosophy and process, crying out for the return of a structured, prescribed curriculum. The policy makers capitulated, a limiting and seemingly disastrous CAPS curriculum was introduced, and nearly 20 years later, the chasm between fast-moving machine learning and our classrooms is insurmountable, or is it?

The recently trending ChatGPT disruption highlights a key educational principle: new knowledge follows great questions. Good educators have long understood that a teacher is but a facilitator of thinking and the best teacher is the one who asks probing questions that push the learner, of any age, to explore and think about something that lies outside their understanding.

In the process, the learner explores and internalises knowledge, and even creates new knowledge to share. This dance is central to any mediated learning experience.

The power of enquiry In response to the current educational crisis in our country, and in a move to embrace the future with all its complexities, disruptions and challenges, teachers must abandon their quest to impart content. Rather, they should hone their skills towards asking questions that drive a process of seeking, assessing and applying the right knowledge.

Such a shift to enquiry-based learning is not a new one; educational experts have been promoting its relevance for years. AI and chatbots make access to information to solve problems all about the right caption or question.

Embrace the questions

It was the powerful questions posed by brave teachers in apartheid classrooms that pushed pupils to oppose the Christian National Education curriculum.

It is the provocation put forward by curious educators that challenge every young inventor alive today to stretch the boundaries of innovation. It is sport coaches who ask record-breaking athletes about their goals, dreams and ambitions that propels them to more practice and strenuous effort.

It is a medical school professor who charges students with the job of asking pertinent questions to identify, treat and even prevent illness and disease where there is no known cure. It is a parent who pauses to ask more about their child’s perspective than interpret only the presenting behaviour in order to modify it.

It is the philosophers, masters and faith leaders who hold us to account by questioning our ethics, process and the human condition. AI interprets and generates language. Human beings ask the right question in the right context at the right time.

Since the days of Socrates and Plato, we know and understand that our lessons and our deep human learning are borne out of significant mediating questions.

Harness the resource

In a recent article for (April 24, 2023), authors Marissa Newman and Aggi Cantrill introduce a science teacher in Germany who founded LAION or Large-scale Artificial Intelligence Open Network.

LAION is a non-profit organisation making machine learning resources available to the general public. It boasts a dataset of URLS pointing to more than 400 million “caption-to-image” pairs. The founder is a teacher who understands the importance of powerful questions to mine new knowledge and make meaningful connections.

He also understands that no lever-arch file or course outline can contain what his pupils need to access if they are to be innovative or thorough.

Embrace the aide and employ the tutor

Bill Gates, at a recent ASU and GSV Summit in San Diego, said children’s reading progress would be successfully facilitated by a chatbot within 18 months and that AI was set to be a teacher’s aide in developing writing and, in time, mathematical skills.

I like this slant. If the chatbots assist the educator and even tutor the child on a personalised basis, the children win. Taking the optimism further, if we are to breach the deficit in literacy skills in South Africa today, we need every teacher to not only use such an aide, but to encourage the “private tutoring” that the technology might be offering.

The idea is perhaps not as new as it seems. Gamification in education has been a useful pursuit for years, and is only on the upward trend. Once upon a time, a child might be a “times table champ” in the morning drill. Now the competitive edge is tech driven, and not only at high pricing.

In 2019, Bellavista School in partnership with MTN and Curious Learning, released Feed the Monster, a suite of early reading apps in all 11 official languages, for free. Beat the level, feed the monster and build reading skills one phonic sound at a time.

The game is entertaining. The outcomes are proved. The children use tech to learn to read, each at their own pace. It’s a win all round. Illiteracy is only one problem in South African education, but machine learning can set about helping us solve one problem at a time, right?

Get on track, fast

Our classrooms need to become laboratories for learning where children learn to think and then think to learn. Open source software, AI and accessible datasets, together with teachers who believe in powerful questions and personalised learning, might just mean there is a chance we can give our children the tools for a lifelong education they need after all, despite the limits of prescribed curriculum. If we invite chatbots and other technologies into our spaces to make this happen, bring it on.

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