OZY Poll: Are We Ready for Robot Teachers?

OZY Poll: Are We Ready for Robot Teachers?

Why you should care

Because the future ain’t slowing down for nobody.

Last spring, professor Ashok Goel added an unusual member to his teaching assistant team for an online course at Georgia Tech: a robot. Flooded with emails from his students, Goel enlisted some digital support to field questions — mostly the mundane, process-oriented queries, like where to find certain lecture slides. The best part? The students had no idea. When they found out the day after the final exam, one student joked about nominating the bot for an Outstanding TA award. To be fair, the clues were there — it was a course on artificial intelligence and the machine was named Jill Watson, employing IBM’s eponymous software.

But the students’ giddy excitement and “mind = blown” GIF-sharing on social media about their robot instructor might not be shared by the average American, it seems. In fact …

92 percent of people believe robots are no replacement for human teachers.

That’s according to a poll conducted this month by OZY and SurveyMonkey about how schools, employers and citizens are preparing for the future of work. And despite this overwhelming majority maintaining that “humans need human interaction to learn,” the same percentage also agreed that technology companies have some role to play in the classroom. “These findings can be interpreted to mean that people want technology to supplement and enhance the learning experience,” says Erin Pinkus, a research scientist at SurveyMonkey, “but they aren’t asking for teachers to be replaced by machines.” Seventy-five percent of survey respondents said there are benefits to traditional, on-campus learning beyond simply a qualification, notes Pinkus, suggesting that human interaction is something “that a robot just cannot provide — yet.”

A total of 3,350 adults across the country — including 631 ages 18 to 34 — were surveyed online August 7–9. Respondents were randomly selected from those who take surveys on SurveyMonkey’s platform. Responses were weighted for age, race, sex, education and geography using census data to reflect the demographic composition of the U.S. (The modeled error estimate for this survey is plus or minus 3.0 percentage points. For the full poll results, click here. For more on SurveyMonkey’s methodology, click here.)

The general public’s instincts might well be right — robo-teachers are not the golden bullet to fix the nation’s struggling education system.

Technology is already invading the classroom, says Joy Harris, director of educational technology at the University of Tampa. She expects to soon see more “ed tech” that integrates more complex human gestures in user interfaces, as well as augmented and virtual realities. However, the distinction between tech that enhances human teachers and that which replaces them is a gray area. “We’re already seeing large-scale increases” in the use of artificial intelligence in the classroom, says Harris, even if that just means asking Siri the answer to a question. Further still, “AI has already been proven effective for teaching rudimentary skills such as colors and numbers, as well as additional languages,” Harris says, adding, “We’ll see that continue to grow rapidly.”

But technology in the classroom can pose a challenge. Even using basic tech like word processors and performing internet-based tasks can cause issues in high-poverty areas where students may be less familiar with technology from a young age, and parents may be less able to support their children’s learning, notes Harris. Similarly, children with exceptional needs — such as particular disabilities — are often left out by ed-tech programs that cater to the mainstream.

So the general public’s instincts might well be right — robo-teachers are not the golden bullet to fix the nation’s struggling education system. Despite the potential success of artificially intelligent programs that aid the learning of simple concepts, all evidence suggests that young children “need high levels of social interaction to thrive,” says Harris. And in the case of the Georgia Tech students unwittingly educated by a machine? Robotic teaching assistants may be “novel,” says Harris, but “how effective they turn out to be remains to be seen.”

You can take the full poll for yourself by scrolling down in the box below.

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