An AI future for education?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a hot topic around the world, its revolutionary potential a cause of excitement for many. Every industry is affected. In education, many are looking forward to its transformative power. That said, some are more sceptical, warning that an overreliance on AI will destroy students’ ability to think for themselves. Countless headlines of students using generative AI to write essays and complete homework haven’t helped mitigate this line of thinking.

But of course, AI in education is more than a homework hack. From the personalisation of learning experiences to optimisation and large-scale data analysis, several key areas can benefit from AI-powered tools.

The power of personalisation

Every student learns differently, with their own preferences and unique cognitive rhythms. And yet, in traditional classrooms, teachers largely instruct students in a uniform manner. A diverse group of students experience the same lesson – untailored to their own needs – and many will not learn optimally as a result.

AI can play a crucial role here. Through machine learning algorithms, AI can assess each student’s strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. From this, AI can recommend resources that might be of interest to the student, and teachers can create personalised educational content and activities. Elsewhere, chatbots harnessing natural language processing technology can answer students’ individual questions – providing further explanations on issues they’re unclear on, but others may not be.

Naturally, many feel very positively about this. After all, student learning styles are not one size fits all, so why should teaching strategies be? Done correctly, AI-powered personalisation has the potential to boost student engagement, reinforce comprehension, and supercharge student learning.

Time-saving potential

But AI in education won’t just help students learn more effectively. It will also help teachers and leadership teams too. To be specific, the time-saving potential will help with managing significant workloads.

Teachers in the UK are overstretched. Full-time lower secondary teachers in England reported working an average of 49.3 hours a week – above the OECD average of 41 hours a week. Sadly, many would-be teachers are put off by these long hours, as well as the admin-heavy workload.

As it happens, admin-heavy workloads have been a long-standing issue. In 2019, Ofsted found that teachers spend less than half of their time on teaching – with lesson planning, marking, and other admin taking up a large part of their non-teaching time. More recently, the NEU Pay and Progression Survey found that 75% of teachers spend too much time on tasks other than teaching, particularly general admin.

Thankfully, the streamlining capabilities of AI can help ease the burden of administrative tasks. By automating tasks like marking multiple-choice assessments and routine assignments, AI can expedite the assessment process, saving teachers substantial time. Even better, AI-powered tools can provide students with near-instant feedback and check for plagiarism too.

This frees up educators’ time – allowing them to spend more in-person time with students (the most rewarding part of the job), undertake more creative lesson planning, or strike a more appropriate work-life balance. This will doubtless boost job satisfaction among teachers. Given the UK’s teacher retention woes, time-saving AI tools can’t be leveraged soon enough.

On top of all this, AI-powered communication tools can help facilitate better engagement between schools and parents by automating communication – something that saves time for teaching staff and can also foster a stronger sense of community.

Data, data, data

Many of the opportunities afforded by AI have to do with quick and accurate data analysis. Indeed, the right AI-powered tools will let education leaders leverage highly sophisticated and rapid data analysis – gaining access to insights that would have previously taken months to get.

For example, an AI-powered solution might provide insights into the effectiveness of a curriculum change in real time – helping educators drive more informed decision-making. On top of this, the same solution might also shed light on the impact of staff or student attendance. Ideally, it’ll have the ability to drill down into the finer details too. This ability to bring together many data sources can be revealing, for example, maybe local roadworks or bus routes or even the weather is having an effect on student attendance, or a large number of teachers are getting the same illness. The right solution will tell education leaders this.

AI can also help analyse student and teacher performance, helping shed light on effective teaching practices. Education leaders then can use this information to tailor professional development programmes and support teachers in improving their instructional methods.

Ultimately, AI and machine learning-powered custom dashboards can provide education leaders with a holistic view of the schools under their control, allowing for a deep understanding of issues. This information can help resolve problems, improve performance, and forecast future performance – aiding resource allocation and saving schools time and money.

A human-centred future

The transformative powers of AI are so extensive that there are bound to be ramifications no one has thought of yet, and it goes without saying that there will be risks involved. For example, education leaders will have to ensure they remain regulatory compliant when using new AI tools. After all, AI-powered tools often require access to personal and sensitive data. In these instances, student and staff data must be collected, processed, and stored securely.

They will also need to put the human first and ensure the latest technologies are used for positive means only. Of course, there will also be some pushback from individuals, who may have valid concerns about biased learning algorithms deepening education inequalities, and worry that AI might put too much insight into the hands of too many.

But education leaders can’t afford to ignore AI. Not only are the younger generation early adopters of tech – and likely are already using generative AI tools – but the positives of AI have the potential to far outweigh the risks for everyone in the education sector.

Done correctly, AI will drive more informed decision-making, free up teachers’ time, and improve retention rates. On top of this, it will democratise access to information – providing accessible tools that can analyse large swathes of data at speed. But perhaps most importantly, AI-powered tools have the potential to enhance the learning experience of students around the world, including those with limited access to traditional schooling. This is an AI future we should all get excited about.

Simon Freeman is Managing Director of Education at IRIS Software Group.

IRIS Software Group is one of the UK’s largest privately held software companies. It exists to take the pain out of processes and let professionals working in businesses and schools focus on the work they love.


Back to top