“Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster”
Strong words by Jim Wallis. Nevertheless, this has been happening in front of our eyes for more than a year.
Education experienced an earthquake during the pandemic that at some point affected 1.5 billion learners. That number represents roughly 90% of all enrolled students according to UNESCO. In particular, I would like to applaud all the teachers in the world that during distance learning have been doing a lot… with sometimes too little help.
The tip of the iceberg allows us to see that educational technology has still a long way to go to help teachers and students by taking their best educational interests and health into account. We have learned now that, ideally, these solutions need to be highly portable to work in classrooms, hybrid or fully online settings.
Don’t get me wrong, researchers have been doing an amazing job to provide meaningful, innovative, and highly portable educational solutions for some decades now. But let me take you one step closer to my PhD research.
Researchers have been developing digital systems that aim to support each student adaptively according to their learning needs. Throughout these years, such systems have been evolving to not only instruct the students but also to support the social, motivational and affective aspects of learning. To that end, researchers came up with the great idea to include in these systems digital entities, or digital agents, that can interact with the student in a social manner while supporting pedagogical needs. You could picture these pedagogical agents as avatars. These digital agents, more commonly referred to as pedagogical agents in the literature, may take the form of text like a chat, voice, 2D or 3D characters, and more human-like entities.
This is all great and exciting. But there is a blind spot: what role do teachers play in all of this? Why are they not allowed to directly intervene in the pedagogical agent systems?
This is where my PhD comes in. I want to allow teachers to directly intervene in these systems. And by intervention, I mean taking control of the pedagogical agent to interact with students when the artificial intelligence of this technology is simply not enough. One example of this situation may be when the student needs specific affective or motivational support, but the system is not able to understand the context of the learner’s questions, comments, complaints, etc. Even more, why not bring these systems to operate at a classroom level where the teacher and the pedagogical agent could collaborate with all students. For instance, to give feedback to certain groups of students while the teacher is assisting another group.
Let us remember that we want technology to help and empower teachers, not to replace them and make them passive in the classrooms. It is well known that teachers play a major role in the learning process. Their ability to make, adapt or evaluate in-situ pedagogical decisions, considering the social and motivational context of students, makes them indispensable.
We don’t want to have a digital disaster to deal with a new social disaster. Instead, let’s revolutionise the interaction between teachers and technology. We could start by designing pedagogical agent systems that employ artificial intelligence to support and help teachers to better orchestrate classroom activities. But this is a story yet to be seen.