Bill Simmalavong founded this blog to explore technology in Education.

AI, Our Replacements? Maybe.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, and the ability to play with large data sets are changing the job landscape. This statement is somewhat of a given at this point. If you don’t know that this is coming, you must be living under a rock. From Bill Gates saying that we should tax these robots to Elon Musk calling for universal basic income, we are fast approaching a world where many jobs will be replaced by machines. It is estimated that a least 5 million jobs worldwide will be eliminated by 2020.

What is striking, however, is that some are projecting that teachers will be one of those jobs that will be replaced in the future. It even made it to Forbes ‘surprising professions that are under threat’. But replace, and change are different concepts.


Why teachers won’t be replaced

The logic goes like this. Teaching is about content and transferal of knowledge. If we can create an AI that can track student progress and present them with the right content at the right time, AI scaffolding, then the job of the teacher is largely replaced, if not replaced altogether.

However, teaching is more than just tracking students and putting them into an individual lesson plan. A holistic approach to education requires relationships, emotional intelligence, and creativity, which all require humans.

robot emotions

Relationship development has been shown to improve student outcomes quite a bit (effect size = 0.72) (Hattie, 2012). Teacher-student relationships are one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve student outcomes. In a world with advanced AI, we could potentially create a computer system that can simulate these interactions but it is unlikely to fully replace a human to human connection. These connections are important. Jobs are becoming more collaborative and without social development, something that AI and computers are unlikely to be built for, students will be severely disadvantaged. We could develop an AI with some oppositional traits that simulate some collaborative barriers to help train students, but the task of creating a system that does this organically may not see an economic benefit for companies developing the technology.

Social development is also innately tied to emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence can be defined as: ‘the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically’. This comes with practice and the oversight of another human being, one that has worked and mastered these skills. As students, through teacher facilitation, work together in groups they develop these skills. This can be augmented with technology to provide a more global perspective but the task of aiding student development in emotional intelligence will largely still be a human project.

In order for us to create AI that can think creatively we must first decode these mechanisms and, if we do, there will be more than just teaching that is in danger of being replaced.

Another core human trait is creativity. Creativity is a 21st century skill that students must master to succeed in a changing labour market. It is generally agreed that creativity is what will set us apart from machines. The role of teachers will be to provide opportunities for students to express their creativity and to explore these thoughts collaboratively. To push students to think about problems in new ways, ones that require abstract thinking. Creativity requires time, boredom, experiences, and context. The mechanisms of creativity are hard to scientifically decode. In order for us to create AI that can think creatively we must first decode these mechanisms and, if we do, there will be more than just teaching that is in danger of being replaced.


Redefining the Teacher

The role of the teacher is changing quite quickly, we must adapt as the traditional skillset won’t work any longer. Technology will continue to creep its way into the classroom and we are finding stark differences in what is happening on the ground. Some teachers thrive and provide brilliant technology augmented experiences. Others crumble under the ever-changing landscape, stuck in an old world talk and chalk mentality. Teachers require more professional development, resources, and support. This is all underpinned by a willingness to learn and adapt, which unfortunately is not always the case.

In this future classroom, teacher’s role will be more of a facilitator than an instructor. We will be providing social learning opportunities through inquiry or project based learning. We will be providing avenues for students to express their creativity. We will be charged with the task of moving students through a social development continuum. As expressed by Geoff Colvin (editor of Fortune Magazine and author of a book on human capabilities) in an NPR article, ‘[teaching students how to manage] the exchanges that occur only between people.’

Teaching, and life in general, is becoming more and more augmented with technology. Everything we do will involve some AI. This creates a world where we as humans are now being displaced in some areas and will require us to focus on others. In an ideal world, technology frees us up to focus on human relationships, to focus on creativity, to focus on richer learning tasks, and to focus on collaborative efforts. The system is not prepared to offer students this reality. Systemically we are ill-equipped to adapt to this new realisation. Technology does not wait. We as a community must adapt, or risk being replaced.


Hattie, John. Visible Learning for Teachers. 2012.

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