Artificial Intelligence in Teaching: The State of the Art

Our technician Richard Weatherall attended a talk on Artificial Intelligence in Education (UCL Knowledge Lab/Pearson) on 24th March

The term artificial intelligence (AI) causes a wide range of different associations for people, usually depending on the level of experience or exposure an individual has to such systems. Many still hold the opinion that AI will herald the end of humanity, believing that its advent will make humans redundant, obsolete, or it will even become advanced to a state where it may decide it has no need for humans and begin to act accordingly.

Fear-mongering aside, AI is already becoming embedded in our society, with companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft all deploying their AI personal assistants (Siri, Now and Cortana) as standard with their products. Historically, there has always been resistance to a paradigm shift such as this, and while it is true some human jobs may be replaced with a mechanoid or synthetic counterpart, the opportunities created are often so vast and diverse even the most prophetic cannot envision the direction of the future unraveling before them.

The International Artificial Intelligence in Education society is concerned with the research and development of the implementation of Artificial Intelligence for learning; and believes well-designed AI, in collaboration with teachers, parents and learners is paramount in maximizing the future benefits AI can offer, which are vast. A recent talk hosted by the UCL Knowledge lab, London, in collaboration with Pearson, highlighted current research in the area, as well as a demonstration of AI currently being deployed to assist learning.

The talk began with a presentation of a review of various meta-analyses looking at use of a number of AI systems/programs in a classroom environment. Results varied slightly between studies, but overall gave a positive view of AI integration. Notably, intelligent teaching systems performed as well as real teachers in one to one (non-expert) tuition. One common theme however, was that despite the varied and positive ways AI systems have been implemented, it was found that there is no AI substitute for classroom experience, with AI systems greatly aiding the teacher, but not being able (or intended) to replace them.

The need for properly developed teaching aids is more important than ever with the government’s plan to academize schools, possibly resulting in a lack of regulated experienced teachers and a focus on the financial bottom line. The bottom line for most teachers, however, is that teachers love to teach; and technology must enhance, enable and empower teachers to this end, which is the goal of AI in Education.

Whatever your opinion of AI, it’s widespread development and use only appears to be increasing. AI therapy programs, for example, are already being deployed to aid mental health in remote areas and populations isolated by war. As computational models of human emotion become more sophisticated and machine learning ever better at detecting the mental state of it user, the need for proper theoretical and experimental data driven designs are paramount. As one guest involved in computing and psychology at the AI.ED talk noted, computer programmers are not inherently psychologists, and psychologists not trained as programmers – a knowledge gap which must be closed in order that AI be safely and productively deployed with maximum benefit for the good of human kind.

Intelligence unleashed: An argument for AI in Education is a publication produced by ULC Knowledge lab and Pearson to inform and educate about the current state of AI.

Some examples of current AI systems being researched and implemented in classrooms, and presented at AI.ED, include Betty’s Brain, italk2learn, Zondle, The Tardis Project and (Whizz education)[].

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How social psychology will change your life

The typical CCCU Psychology student is drawn towards clinical, health, forensic, and/or educational psychology. But the sub-discipline of psychology that I love is social psychology, because of its relevance to everything that goes on in the world. Let me give you two examples:

In March 2015, the co-pilot of a German airliner crashed his plane in the French Alps, killing all passengers and crew. Media coverage of this tragic event quickly centred on his mental health and the security provisions on board. But, as if the event itself had not been shocking enough, the reader comments added to various online articles were soon full of speculation about a catastrophic safety failure on an aged and poorly maintained aircraft, now systematically covered up by the airline and the investigating authorities in France and Germany. An obvious but seldom asked question about this event is thus: Why were people so ready to believe these complex and sinister ideas, when the official investigation had suggested the (subsequently confirmed) suicide and murder early on?

There is a young but growing body of social-psychological literature about conspiracism, some of which features in our second-year module, Influences on Social Functioning. This literature suggests, for example, that people may believe conspiracy theories because big events prompt them to seek big explanations (Leman & Cinnirella, 2007). It also supplies some evidence of projection processes, whereby people will tend to believe in actions that they would be willing to take themselves (Douglas & Sutton, 2011). A possible – unproven – explanation for the belief in conspiracy theories around the 2015 airline crash is therefore that people could imagine complicity in a cover-up but not in the suicidal intentions of a single person causing the tragic deaths of so many.

The second example of how social psychology offers a different perspective on current events is very current indeed: The British EU referendum on 23 June 2016 will determine whether the UK leaves or remains a member of the European Union. Throughout the debate about a potential “Brexit”, I have been struck by speakers’ attempts to focus on economic arguments, when the issues so obviously involve identity, solidarity, power, and nationalism. As will be well known to students of our third-year module, The Psychology of Nations, there is evidence from discourse analytic studies that English interviewees may avoid talking about national pride for fear of appearing prejudiced (e.g. Condor, 2000), but commonly use references to “being an island” to highlight distinctiveness from other European nations (Abell et al., 2006). The way people feel about national and European identity does not seem to be well represented in the political arguments about the referendum, and important complexities in precisely these areas seem to be in danger of being overlooked prior to such an important decision. A quantitative study by Cinnirella and Hamilton (2007), for example, found significant negative correlations between British and European identity (r = -.25) and between British identity and attitudes towards Europe (r = -.46) among white British participants, but positive correlations between the same measures (r = .74 and r = .41, respectively) among British Asians. Perceived compatibility between Britishness and Europe is obviously variable and deserves to be part of the debate.

So here is my promise and challenge to you: Social psychology will help you think differently about current affairs. When following the news, try to apply this perspective and think about what it adds to your understanding. Feel free to send me your ideas – I’ll be interested in hearing about them!


Abell, J., Condor, S., & Stevenson, C. (2006). “We are an island”: Geographical imagery in accounts of citizenship, civil society, and national identity in Scotland and in England. Political Psychology, 27(2), 207-226. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2006.00003.x

Cinnirella, M., & Hamilton, S. (2007). Are all Britons reluctant Europeans? Exploring European identity and attitudes to Europe among British citizens of South Asian ethnicity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(3), 481–501. doi:10.1080/01419870701217530

Condor, S. (2000). Pride and prejudice: Identity management in English people’s talk about “this country”. Discourse and Society, 11(2), 175-205. doi: 10.1177/0957926500011002003

Douglas, K.M., & Sutton, R.M. (2011). Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50(3), 455-552. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2010.02018.x

Leman, P. J., & Cinnirella, M. (2007). A major event has a major cause: Evidence for the role of heuristics in reasoning about conspiracy theories. Social Psychological Review, 9(2), 18-28.

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