Home Education Options Could Robots Teach Online College Courses? Part II
Could Robots Teach Online College Courses? Part II

Could Robots Teach Online College Courses? Part II

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Start a transportation and logistics degree at American Public University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

This is the second of a two-part series on artificial intelligence in the classroom.

The teaching profession today faces many challenges that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago. Just the notion of online higher education was a science-fiction concept. But many colleges and universities offer online instruction today.

We online instructors are always searching for new pedagogical programs to improve our teaching methods and contacts with our students. But there is a new teaching tool on the horizon, the artificial intelligence (AI) robot. Can robots truly develop a bond with students the way actual teachers do?

How Online Instructors Develop Bonds with Students

In my 10 years as an online instructor, one method that I have used to foster greater student participation in the classroom is to send a few short videos to each student in an email the first week of class and when their first written papers are graded. Students see me sitting at my desk with books and personal items on the bookcase behind me.

Along with the videos, I include a personal message to any student who is floundering. I never let go of that contact message. My goal is to get students to the point where they tell me they get it and they understand that the course is not as hard as they once thought. It takes a lot of my time, but I believe the final result is worth it.

However, videos are not enough. Coaches listen to their students and try to find out what is hampering their success in college or in life. A human coach helps change those concerns into a set of goals and a plan to achieve personal success.

A clever AI designer could add a video function to robots. But can AI get into students’ highly personal space and show the very human trait of compassion? Would students appreciate mechanical concern from a robot as much as that which comes from a human teacher? I doubt it.

Will Robots and AI Eventually Become Common in Everyday Life?

Robots or AI systems are here to stay. They have been making advances in business since the 1950s, including in:

  • Manufacturing — using robots to replace factory workers
  • Transportation — driverless cars and instant directional mapping
  • Healthcare monitoring and life-saving computer devices
  • Medicine electronically controlled for use by patients
  • Military applications — drones, smart weapons and inventory systems
  • Robots or smart machines helping shoppers in retail stores, even replacing checkout clerks

AI has also penetrated the news. For example, China developed an AI news anchor for televised news broadcasts. CNN announced this innovation with a lead sentence that read: “News anchors, beware. The robots are coming for your jobs, too.”

The Chinese state news agency Xinhua said the use of an AI robot will “reduce news production costs and improve efficiency.” The goal of the makers of this AI robot is to replace human news anchors.

According to CNN, “The English-speaking anchor, complete with a suit and tie, is modeled on a real-life Xinhua anchor called Zhang Zhao.”

Fortune magazine has reported on products such as Amazon’s Echo and other smart technology devices that listen to your verbal commands around the home or office and obey them. Is this technology destined to appear in online classrooms?

Today’s smartphones have the ability to make forum discussion sessions as easy as answering a text message from your family. Technology allows an almost instant reply to a student query. Smartphones even offer a choice of automatic replies from a simple “Thank you” to a thumbs-up emoji.

AI Software Rubrics Can Grade Papers and Post Grades

There are now automated grading rubrics that can scan the 200- to 300-word forum posts written by students and assign grades to them. AI software can identify and count the number of misspelled words, find grammatical errors and determine whether a student has met the professor’s stated requirements. Ultimately, AI could do a college professor’s work of posting grades to students more quickly.

Online teachers lecture using PowerPoint presentations along with a written caption for each slide. There are also lecture notes to accompany the syllabus for the course.

However, that same lecture could be delivered through voice-activated software like Siri or Echo. Could AI software do that? Yes. Can an AI software package create a lecture that is easy and exciting to read? Yes, of course. But we still need online teachers for the lecture preparation, the notes and the PowerPoint slides.

Teachers in an AI world would be able to devote more of their time to enhancing student engagement and improving their interactions in forum discussions. They would also have more time to post videos, respond to students’ concerns and encourage student success.

Online classroom forum discussions are a place where students realize that faculty members are concerned about their success and opinions. In this way, live teachers become coaches and mentors to students, not mere graders of papers and exams.

Teachers’ Jobs Could Become Easier through Artificial Intelligence and Robots

Actual teachers are not going away. Instead, they are entering a digital environment that will make some aspects of their jobs easier through artificial intelligence.

For example, Finland is already testing AI robot teachers in schools to teach foreign languages. Finland is using a real robot, not an animation AI system like China’s for delivering the news. This robot replaces a human teacher.

When an AI robot teacher can move and talk autonomously, as we do, and interact in free-flowing exchange of words and ideas, then AI teaching technology will have fully arrived. But that doesn’t mean such human-like AI teachers will replace us online professors.

The history of automation and technology has shown that humans who work with technology systems become better at their jobs. Maybe an AI teacher of the future will be paired with you, the human teacher. Maybe the AI teacher can take on some of the more routine aspects of teaching and leave the more engaging parts to us. That would make us all better teachers.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was the program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics.

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