September 30, 2023

Creating Robots to Replace Online Professors, Part 1

Author: Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
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Start a transportation and logistics management degree at American Public University.

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

This is the first of two articles on the pedagogic effect of robots replacing online professors.

When we examine how artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic technology have entered so many aspects of daily life, the next logical place to find AI is in education. Just as whiteboards and computer monitors have replaced chalkboards and notebooks in many classrooms, robots and AI software are the big innovations in technology.

Can you imagine a robot or an AI system teaching students in an online classroom? Could robotic teaching become a new academic budget strategy or used in an AI college course for credit?

Schools in Finland are already experimenting and investing in AI robot teachers. They are using a humanoid robot to teach students a foreign language.

As a student, would you care if your weekly discussion board comments or that required weekly paper were edited, critiqued and graded by a teaching robot? Most of today’s online classrooms are asynchronous with no live-streaming exchange with the teacher.

As a teacher, should you be more concerned than your students about AI or robotic teachers? After all, you might lose your job or your career.

Artificial Intelligence Has Invaded Other Industries, So Why Not Education?

Robots or AI systems are here to stay. Robots are in many businesses and have been since the 1950s in various fields, such as:

  • Manufacturing — using robots to replace factory workers
  • Transportation — driverless cars and instant directional mapping
  • Healthcare — patient monitoring, life-saving computer devices and medicine that is electronically controlled for patients
  • Military — drones, smart weapons and inventory systems
  • Retail — helping shoppers in retail stores and replacing checkout clerks

Technology has affected manufacturing in many ways. Your current job in a warehouse, a manufacturing plant or a distribution center may not exist in 10 years. What about teaching? With AI penetrating our world, isn’t it the next logical step for AI to enter the field of education?

AI in Education Would Lack the Ability to Form Meaningful Connections with Students

AI has its limitations in education, however. Will an AI teacher be able to help students who think they are headed in the wrong direction? Will that AI teacher know how to advise students who are thinking of dropping out?

As a teacher, my specialty is instruction. Sometimes, students will ask me for advice about their future. My experience is that such students can be encouraged to stay in school.

But what about a robot teacher? I suspect that the designers of such technology would program the robot to steer struggling students to a college advisor with phone numbers, email links and websites possibly with videos.

But will this strategy work? It’s often irritating when you’re not promptly routed to live customer service when you call a company with a complaint. Would colleges also replace human guidance counselors with a similar AI robot administrative assistant or a computer program?

Will Robots and AI Eventually Become Common in Education?

China is using facial recognition technology in numerous innovative ways. Chinese KFC restaurants use smart video technology to perform facial recognition and to determine customers’ ages. Older people are offered different meal options than millennials.

China has also adopted jaywalking cameras that post photos of offenders on huge screens and issue them tickets within 20 minutes. The Chinese government is also using facial recognition technology as a domestic surveillance system.

Robots and AI systems are already in many American homes and offices. Amazon’s Echo and other smart technology obey the verbal commands of their owners. Is this type of advanced technology destined to appear in online classrooms?

Online professors rarely interact with students in person or even talk to them on the phone. Previously, I had contact with my students just a few days a week in forum discussions. Actually speaking to students by phone or on Skype was rare.

But today’s smartphones allow me to reply to a student almost instantly. Smartphones even offer a choice of automatic replies from a simple “Thank you” to a thumbs-up emoji or other replies tailored especially to what the student wanted to know. How well would robots answer the phone?

AI can alleviate some of the more tedious teaching tasks, such as grading papers for compliance with requirements, spelling and grammar. AI software could post grades and include pithy comments of encouragement or praise.

Can an AI software package create a lecture that is easy and exciting to read? Yes. Ultimately, AI could do all the work of a college professor and quicker.

In this AI world, instructors would be able to devote more time to enhancing student engagement and improving interactions in forum discussions. They would have more time to post videos, respond to students and encourage their success.

In online classroom forum discussions, students would realize that faculty members are concerned about their opinions and success. In this way they become coaches and mentors to their students, not merely graders of papers.

When an AI robot teacher can talk autonomously and interact with human students in free-flowing exchanges of words and ideas, then AI pedagogical technology will have fully arrived.

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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