Home Online Learning Could Robots Teach Online College Courses? Part I
Could Robots Teach Online College Courses? Part I

Could Robots Teach Online College Courses? Part I

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Start a transportation and logistics degree program at American Public University.

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

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

The growth of online education has produced a cadre of thousands of college or university instructors who work from a home office. However, many of these online classes are asynchronous with no live exchanges with the instructors.

So could you imagine an artificial intelligence (AI) system, perhaps a robot, teaching an online class? Could replacing human instruction with AI become a new academic budget strategy?

If you were an online student, would you care if your weekly discussion comments or papers were critiqued and graded by Robbie the Robot?

When you examine how AI and robotic technology have altered so many aspects of our daily life, the next logical place where AI could be useful is in education. After all, whiteboards and computer monitors have replaced chalkboards, pens and ink in many brick-and-mortar classrooms. Robots and AI software are the next logical steps in educational technology.

Replacing Teachers with Artificial Intelligence 

As a teacher, would you be more concerned about AI or robotic instructors than your students are because you might lose your position and perhaps even your career? Is that a far-fetched science fiction idea or is it a reality about to unfold?

Even if you are not replaced by an AI robot, you might find one working as your classroom partner. If it hasn’t happened already, AI will likely affect your future as a teacher.

AI Could Teach, But It Can’t Replace Students’ Need for Advice

How will AI teachers help those students who fear they are headed in the wrong direction? How will they advise students who think college is not for them?

As an online professor for more than 10 years, I have had contact with over 5,000 adult students. Formerly, I had contact with my students only a few days a week in forum discussions. So I typically add text along with a photo or YouTube video to complement my written words. Actual communication by phone, Skype, Big Blue Button, Adobe Connect or other live connections was rare.

My students have talked to me, emailed me and sent me text messages regarding their successes, failures or fears about college. About one student a month tells me he or she is unsure whether college will help in finding a new career or that the coursework will improve job performance.

As a teacher, my specialty is instruction. As a human teacher, I believe I have developed a level of trust with my students and can encourage them to stay in school. I have had great success in doing so.

I’ve found that in an online classroom, students are more likely to discuss their concerns because they feel more comfortable talking to a stranger (me) than they would to close friends or relatives. Would they be so open with AI robots?

I would suspect that the design engineers of robotic smart brains could easily create a program that would guide a struggling student to a college advisor’s phone number and email link. There could even be a link to a beautiful website with great videos.

But would that be enough to assuage a student’s concerns?  It is often frustrating when you have a complaint or problem about a product and the customer service number is only an automated human voice. Would a college replace its human counseling staff with robotic assistants or a computer program and expect to adequately serve the needs of its students?

Can AI Robots Share Gossip?

Can an AI robot share a personal story, make some small talk or gossip with you? Sharing personal gossip — the soft kind, not the mean-spirited kind — increases student engagement.

Some of my faculty friends say the word “gossip” has a negative connotation, so we reduce that by adding the word “soft.” But that term could also be called life lessons or life experiences. I have found that soft, personal gossip keeps online students engaged in classroom discussions and encourages them to stay in the course when the work seems overwhelming.

Can an AI robot share its life experiences or life lessons as humans can? No, of course not. An AI robot cannot say, “When I was a student…” or “When I started teaching….”. All that a robot might be capable of doing is replaying recorded examples of human experiences.

AI robots can offer generic encouraging words, videos and examples organized to provide inspirational messages. But the human element of being able to interrupt a discussion or ask questions of the student is missing.

Often, it is the ability to interrupt the lecture with a question that gives a student a sense of connecting with the instructor. Interrupting a robot, however, would likely not create any kind of human-robot connection. In fact, it’s more likely that the robot would not “hear” the question and simply continue with its recorded response.

The push to make robots more human-like has been pursued by many technology research centers and universities, especially since the 1980s when computer technology started miniaturizing and data storage increased. One key factor of us humans is to make mistakes and correct our direction, actions or concepts.

These responses are what will set a robot in line with us humans. These human traits are not in robots yet, but they might be in 20 or 30 years.

So, teachers, do not worry too much about being replaced by a robot. But you might see a robot or AI piece of software that will grade your classroom assignments. You can then spend more time helping students to stay engaged and excited, as well as growing their passion for completing that course or college degree.

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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