AI in Education — Are teachers going to be replaced?
Three paths to replacement
I have been at the teaching game for a while and have been an unapologetic cheerleader for the wave of edtech that flooded our classrooms over the past 20+ years. During this time, there has been a lot of resistance and skepticism about these new technologies, but little, if any, of this angst was around how they would replace us. The collective consternation of the teaching profession was primarily around how it would change our jobs and how this deluge of technological change would affect learning. To add to this worry, there was the unspoken expectation that teachers would adapt to this technological change without delay and lo and behold, without us even noticing, it happened. These new teaching and learning technologies became an integral part of the K — 12 landscape, and the profession as we know it didn't crumble. If you don't believe me, bring down the internet on Monday morning 5 minutes before class starts in any school across the land. You will quickly see how dependent education has become on the technologies we were concerned about. Then November 2022 happened…
Enter Artificial Intelligence. In November 2022, without pomp or circumstance, a small innocuous Natural Language Processing AI called ChatGPT was unleashed onto the world. Something even the most tech-savvy of educators was not expecting was suddenly unleashed onto the scene. The response of the education world to this new AI was quick and expected. As I write this post, I am unaware of a classroom from Kindergarten to Ph.D. that does not have access to ChatGPT blocked. To say that this little AI took the education world by surprise is an understatement. With the edtech introduced over the past 20 years, we saw it coming, we had time to discuss it, and we were able to make informed(ish) decisions before unleashing it onto teachers and students, but this time is different.
Before I go any further, let's be clear. I am not considering Chat GPT to be an education-specific technology. What I am trying to relay here is that we (as in all of us) may be entering an era where we will not have much control over the effect of new AI technologies on ANY of our professional lives. We are entering a brave new world of employment or lack thereof, leading us to this post's main topic. Are teachers going to be replaced by AI?
While pondering this post, I wondered what ChatGPT's opinion would be on this topic. Surprisingly, they/them or it had a reassuring assessment of the importance of teachers today and in the era of AI. The question I posed was: Hey, Chat GPT, do you think teachers are going to be replaced by AI?
While technology has made significant advancements in recent years, I do not believe that teachers will be completely replaced by AI in the near future. Teachers provide a lot more than just information to their students. They also offer emotional support, encouragement, and mentorship, which are essential for a student’s development and growth.
Moreover, teachers are trained to be able to respond to the unique needs and learning styles of individual students, which is something that AI cannot replicate fully. Although AI technology can be used to supplement teaching, such as providing personalized feedback or additional resources, it is unlikely to replace the role of a teacher entirely. — ChatGPT
While it is heartening that ChatGPT appears to be on our side, espousing the importance of having a human in the classroom, ChatGPT is only saying this because its programming has a bias that favours the preservation of teachers in the school and the data from wich it generates its response supports this bias. Outside of Chat's programming and database, the world is not quite so simple or teacher friendly. In the real world, three primary factors will open the door to AI replacing teachers in the future. The first two are interrelated but can stand independently, so I will comment on each as such. First is money, the second is politics, and the third is the current state of the teaching profession.
The money path by which AI may enter education and replace teachers will be very location specific. Jurisdictions constantly looking to cut funding for education will be the first to embrace an AI replacement, as teachers' salaries are a big part of any education budget. As a point of reference, in the 2019/2020 school year, an average of 75% of Provincial education budgets in Canada went to employee compensation (Fraser Institute — 2022). Although the Fraser Institute report did not delineate who was doing what for that money, I assume this number includes the salary of support staff, administration and teachers. Now imagine the savings IF you could eliminate one of these groups, whether in whole or part. If someone could develop an AI that promised even a reasonable facsimile of an actual living, breathing teacher, there would undoubtedly be some penny-pinching politician someplace in this world that would happily oust a teacher for an AI educator, which leads us to the second pathway.
The second path AI takes to enter the education system and replace teachers is politics. Some political jurisdictions may opt for AI teachers over living, breathing ones because it would be far easier to control what is taught in the classroom. I said that ChatGPT had a bias programmed into it that favoured the preservation of teachers in the school, but that favourable bias could easily be changed with a tweak of some code and a database to match. An AI could be programmed to teach whatever reality any politician wanted it to teach. One doesn’t need to look far in today's world to find a place where playing politics with the social order has become commonplace. Clearly, many politicians are more than willing to use whatever tools available to gain power and advance their agendas. This could be a severe problem in waiting if educational AI becomes a political tool to advance a political agenda.
The current state of the teaching profession
Finally, there is the current state of the teaching profession. Despite what some people would have you think, people are not clamouring to be teachers at this moment. The fat wages, lavish benefits, cushy pensions and endless vacation time are not drawing people into the profession like they used to. For those who are not up on the latest teacher news, there is a significant teacher shortage in jurisdictions all over North America. According to National Center for Education Statistics, the decline in enrollment for teacher training programs in the United States between 2009 and 2019 was upwards of 35%, and Canada’s numbers are similarly down, coming in at a 28% decline (Canadian Association for Teacher Education). Coupled with the decrease in the profession’s front end, the back end of the profession is taking a beating as well. The Learning Policy Institute predicts that as many as 1,000,000 retirements in the United States may occur within the next five years. With the shrinking numbers of teachers at both ends of the profession, a vacuum has been created that an education AI might be the next logical choice in the absence of a living, breathing teacher.
With all this said, there is one caveat. Along with the declining number of teachers available, there is also a decline in children entering this world. Canada's fertility rate is 1.4, and the United States is 1.6. A country needs a fertility rate of 2.1 to maintain its population and produce a steady stream of school-age children to feed the public school system. The current fertility rates of Canada, the USA and other well-educated developed nations are falling. Therefore, the number of school-age children around could decline, but this is for a closed system. This scenario does not account for how immigration may affect the need for teachers. Only time will tell how this all plays out, but one thing is certain, the decline in the teaching population is happening at a much more aggressive rate than the decline in the number of school-age children.
So what does this all mean, are teachers on the way out or what? Well, yes and no. I believe there will always be a place for flesh and blood teachers in our school system; after all, we are human, and learning through interacting with each other is part of how we evolved to where we are today, so I don't see that changing any time soon. However, I am confident there will be some instances where teachers are replaced. The money and political path to replacing teachers will be the most contentious. There will be some angry exchanges between the politicians who want to implement it and the educators who are about to lose their jobs. There will likely be a few parents and students who will get into the mix as well, but it will be a losing battle in the end. The state of the profession path will be a smoother transition, simply out of necessity. The shrinking pool of teachers available is a problem here and now, and if someone can come up with an AI that can help alleviate the effects of this shortage, I think there will be little place for objection.
Interesting times are ahead.