Artificial Intelligence in the Classroom

In 1990, a little known film called “Class of 1999” came out. In this movie, three military grade robots are placed in an inner-city war zone school to with the job of teaching.

As with any movie, things quickly get out of hand and the robot teachers begin killing the naughty students and eventually manipulating the local gangs into fighting and killing each other. Eventually, in something that can only happen in a movie, three military grade AI robots similar to the terminator are destroyed by a delinquent teenager

There has been a lot of hype and excitement over the growth of data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. With this growth, these ideas have begun to expend into supporting education. This has even led to speculation among some that algorithms and artificial intelligence could replace teachers in the classroom.

There are several reasons why this is. My reasons are listed as follows

  • People Need People
  • Computers need people
  • Computers assist people

People Need People

When it comes to education, people need people. Originally, education was often passed through apprenticeship for trades and one-on-one tutoring for elites. There has allows been some form of mass education but it has always involved people helping each other.

There are certain social-emotional needs that people have that cannot be satisfied by even the most life-like machine. When humans communicate they always convey some form of emotion even in the most harden computer like individual. Although AI is making strides in attempting to read, emotions they are far from convincingly portraying emotions. Besides, students want someone who can laugh, joke, smile, and do all those little things that involve being human. Even such mundane things as tripping over one’s shoes, or forgetting someone’s name add a human element to the learning experience.

Furthermore, even if a computer is able to share emotions in a human-like manner what child would really feel satisfaction from pleasing an Amazon Alexa? People need people and AI teachers cannot provide this even if they can provide top-level content.

Another concern is that people are highly unpredictable. Again, this relates to the emotional aspects of human nature. Even humans who have the same emotional characteristics are surprised by the behavior of fellow humans. When an algorithm is coldly calculating what is an appropriate action this inability to deal with unpredictable actions can be a problem.

A classic example of this is classroom management. If a student is not paying attention, or not doing their work, or showing defiance in one way or the other how would a computer handle this. In the movie “Class of 1999” the answer for disruptive behavior was to kill. Few parents and administrators would approve of such an action coming from an artificial neural network.

People need people in the context of education for the socio-emotional aspect of education as well as for the tribulation of classroom management. Computers are not humans and therefore they cannot provide the motivation or inspiration that so many students need to be successful in school.

Computers Need People

A second reason AI teachers are unlikely is because computers need people. Computers breakdown,  there are bugs in code, updates have to be made etc. All this precludes a machine going completely independent. With everything that can go wrong there has to be people there to monitor the use and interaction of machines with people.

Even in the movie “Class of 1999” there was a research professor and administrator monitoring the school. This continued until they were killed by the AI teachers.

With all the amazing advances in AI and machine learning it is still people who tweak the algorithms and provide the data for the machine to learn. After this is done, the algorithm is still monitored to see how it performs. Computers cannot escape their reliance on humans to maintain their functionality which implies that they cannot be turned loss in a classroom alone.

Computers Help People

The way going forward is that perhaps AI and other aspects of machine learning and data science can support teachers to be better teachers. For example, in some versions of Moodle there is an algorithm that will monitor students participation and will predict if students are at risk of failing. There is also an algorithm that predicts if a teacher is teaching. This is an excellent use of machine learning in that it deals with a routine task and simple flags a problem rather than trying to intervene it’s self.

Another useful application more in line with AI is through tutoring. Providing feedback on progress and adjusting what the student does based on their performance. Again, in a supporting role, AI can be excellent. The problem is when AI becomes the leader.


The advances in technology are going to continue. However, with the amazing breakthroughs in this field people still need interaction with other people and the example of others in a social context. Computers will never be able to provide this. Computers also need the constant support of humans in order to function. The proper role for AI and data science in education may be as a supporter to a teacher rather than the one leading and making criticaltaff decisions about other people.

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