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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
- Manufacturing, such as using robots to replace factory workers
- Transportation, driverless cars and instant directional mapping
- Health care monitoring and life-saving computer devices
- Medicine that is electronically controlled for use by patients
- Military applications, such as today’s drones, smart weapons and inventory systems
- Robots or smart machines helping shoppers in retail stores, even replacing checkout clerks
The “I Robot” book is also noteworthy for Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Robots and Smart Machines Now Becoming Everyday Sights
Ever since the 1950s, the possibility of robots being part of our labor force and our offices has been a dream of innovative business and military leaders. In 2017, Forbes magazine published an article about robots coming to retail stores.
In 2018, smart machines have appeared at McDonalds, toll booths and checkout counters at retail stores like Walmart. Similarly, China is using facial recognition machines in public restrooms in order to dispense paper for your needs.
China has also adopted jaywalking cameras that post your photo for everyone to see on huge screens along the street and on social media sites. These machines can even issue you a jaywalking ticket within 20 minutes.
Even at a Chinese KFC, smart video technology performs facial recognition and checks customers’ ages. Older people are offered different meal options than millennials.
These facial recognition systems are a part of Chinese cybersecurity. While China has led the way in artificial intelligence (AI) technology to help customers purchase items and walk safely across streets, the Chinese government is also using this technology as a domestic surveillance system. It appears that living freely without being monitored is an illusion in China.
Robots and AI systems are already in many homes and offices and are used for your convenience. Fortune magazine and other publications have reported on products such as Amazon’s Echo and other smart technology that listens to your verbal commands around the home or office.
But is this type of technology fated to appear in online classrooms?
Adopting AI and Robots in the Online Classroom
In online college courses, professors rarely interact face-to-face with students or even talk to them on the telephone. As a full-time professor, I have a lot of contact with students, but that contact is limited to emails and texts.
Formerly, I only had contact with students a few days a week in forum discussions. I would add text along with a photo or YouTube video to compliment my written words. Actual talking by phone, Skype, Big Blue Button, Adobe Connect or other live connections was rare.
But with today’s smartphones, the ability to be in forum discussion sessions is as easy as answering a text message from my family. Technology allows an almost instant reply to a student. Smartphones even offer you a choice of automatic replies from a simple “Thank you” to a thumbs-up emoji, or other replies tailored to what the student asked.
Is it possible that someday online college professors will not talk to or be seen by students? How will students know whether or not their weekly college papers were graded by a real person or by AI software?
How will students know if their forum discussion posts are graded by real instructors? There are grading rubrics, called I Rubrics, that automatically check what students have submitted in online discussions and papers.
There are now automated grading rubrics that can scan and check the 200- to 300-word forum posts written by students and assign grades. That AI software can identify and count the number of misspelled words, find grammar errors, and determine if the student met the requirement of posing a question to another student in the forum post. Ultimately, AI could do all the work of a college professor and post grades to students more quickly.
Could AI Give Classroom Lectures?
Online teachers give classroom lectures by providing PowerPoint slides with a narrative at the bottom of those slides for students to read. There are also lecture notes to accompany the syllabus for the course.
That same lecture could be run through voice-activated software, so that the student could listen to a nice-sounding female or male voice. Currently, those lecture notes are written by a live teacher.
Could AI software do that? Yes. Can an AI software package pull and create a lecture that is easy and exciting to read? Yes.
AI software could read forum discussion posts and written papers to see if the basics conform to the grading rubric. So, what would be left for a live teacher in this type of high-tech class?
Teachers Are Still Needed, but AI Could Relieve Faculty Members from Tedious Jobs
Online teachers are still needed. But AI can take away some of the more tedious teaching jobs, such as grading papers for compliance with an outline, spelling and grammar. AI software could post grades and include pithy comments of encouragement or praise.
Teachers in this type of AI world would be able to devote their time to enhancing student engagement and improving their interactions with students in forum discussions. They would have more time to post videos, responding to students and encouraging student success.
Online classroom forum discussions are a place where students realize that faculty members are concerned about their success and opinions. In these forums, live teachers share soft gossip with students and exchange real-world experiences relating to that week’s topic to develop real relationships with students. In this way, live teachers become coaches and mentors to students, not mere graders of papers.
The Future of Education Is Likely to Involve Robots and AI
When you examine how AI and robotic technology have entered many aspects of daily life, the next logical place where AI can be used is in education. Whiteboards and computer monitors have replaced chalkboards in many brick-and-mortar classrooms, so robots and AI software are the next steps in technology.
But teachers are not going away. Instead, they are entering a digital environment where some aspects of their jobs will be easier through artificial intelligence.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.
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