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Could AI Teachers Replace Your Online Instructors?

Could AI Teachers Replace Your Online Instructors?

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

During the late 1980s into the 1990s, the push toward artificial intelligence (AI) was seemingly everywhere in the news and in the boardroom. At the time, I was the director of the Army’s AI Center for Logistics at Fort Lee, Virginia. There were seven such AI centers within the military then, budgeted and supported by General Maxwell R. Thurman, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.

Thurman supported the development of AI systems for better Army logistics accounting systems, data processing analyses, and smarter policy and procedure applications. His mantra was simple. He wanted all seven centers to make AI a common vocabulary term in all we did.

He wanted military thinking about AI to be as common a term as logistics, supply chain and warehouse operations. So, part of our job was to spread the term and make it commonplace. We did that with AI conferences, funded AI replacement systems for manual logistics processes, and created articles for military and civilian newspapers and magazines.

One result after five years was to witness Army leaders, directors, managers and supervisors starting to tell the generals how they were implementing AI in the military.

Today, it seems that discussions of AI are back in the news, in academic courses and training sessions, especially when we talk about autonomous vehicles. AI seems to be everywhere. So, why shouldn’t AI be in the online classroom?

Student Survey: Should Online Teachers Be AI Teachers?

I have taught online classes full-time for many years. This question of AI expert systems replacing online professors was recently discussed by students. I recently asked 118 students two questions about AI teachers:

  1. Would you care if your online teacher was an artificial intelligence (AI) system, like a robot, compared to a human instructor?
  2. Do you think that the responses from me or the AI system would be different in replying to your forum statements, asking follow-up questions, or grading and commenting on your written paper assignments? Would you care?

Of the 31 students (32% of the total students surveyed) who responded to these questions, 10 were positive toward AI as an online teacher. However, from the overall 118 students sent the questions, these 10 people represent about 9%.

The positive response may not be statistically significant. But when innovation comes knocking, it is often the case that few people see it coming, want to see it coming, or even look at it coming their way.

One student offered a year when AI teachers would begin appearing. That year was 2030. The student saw that the new technology would “take some time to develop.” We discussed how AI technology was becoming normal in the home — on their laptops, with smart replies to their text messages to friends, and the growth of autonomous tractor-trailers and automobiles.

The almost daily occurrence of AI technology around us at work and home seemed to resonate with other students. Another student stated, “You never know what the future brings, and the level of AI we will be able to produce may be indistinguishable at some point.”

While the general acceptance of AI in our lives seems to have become normal, the actual prospect of replacing their current human teachers was rather interesting. The reactions went from not seeming to care if the human was replaced to “it might be interesting.”

One student said, “I would be interested in taking a courses from an AI instructor to just have the experience on how the course is run.” Another student broadened that acceptance with “I have no problems with AI personally, and I do believe it can be beneficial as a supplemental learning experience.”

Other students got into the weeds of teacher-student actions by examining what might work with an AI teacher. One student said, “I believe the responses would be different. In my opinion, an AI has all the book answers and grading a test is straightforward; either you got it right or wrong.” One student offered what courses would be best taught by an AI teacher, saying, “AI can help students to read or do math” and “AI will add an additional depth to learning so that educators can teach more efficiently. “

One student offered a little humor in the answer with, “There are plenty of bad professors that I would love to see replaced by AI. I think the only upside to an AI replacing professors is that it takes out any kind of bias a professor might have towards any one student.” The same student commented, “AI would learn over time what questions to ask.”

On the flip side of humor, one student indicated that he did not to care if their teacher was AI or human. He said, “Some classes, I do not reach out to my Prof. So, in that case I would not mind an AI.”

Two students seemed to really think a bit deeper into this issue of AI teachers. They said, “I understand that an AI can be programmed to respond but there is no years of growth, development and personal experiences like there is from a human. I believe that an AI would have different responses then you would, professor. The AI would have a set of rules that would not be able to be waivered from.”

The other student was interested in the easy aspects of using AI teachers. He said, “What would make the difference is the content of the course. If the requirement of the class is reading and answering multiple-choice questions, then I would gladly work with an AI system. The benefits for me is that I wouldn’t have to answer any additional questions or perform any additional tasks. I’d know exactly what is required.”

He went on to explain, “A good example of an AI system that is currently in use is Grammarly. It is great at identifying grammatical errors, spelling and punctuation errors. A human can do the same, maybe not as consistently, but that is not necessarily due to the human’s inability to identify errors but more so that the human is reading everything and getting the whole picture from what he/she is reading.”

Some People Are Always Resistant to New Technology

It seems clear that there are students not willing to accept an AI system to replace a human for online training. But what if evidence from these results is not a closure of the topic?

Such negative replies were evident in the 1980s and 1990s when MIT and other innovative institutions were building autonomous vehicles. A similar pattern of negative reactions is evident in many of the innovations that are now in common use, such as the Internet, the iPhone and the laptop computer.  But those few positive reactions to past technology innovations later became a hidden teacher of technology acceptance.

What we have with the findings from my survey is a set of requirements to build successful AI teachers. If a builder of online classes can overcome all the negative aspects of using AI instructors, then there might be a place in the near future for AI teachers or a combination of AI and human teachers in each online course.

Maybe the AI segment of the course could even give the human teacher more time to engage students in video, audio or typed dialogue and discussions. What do you think?

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was 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 from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.

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