Nadya Thorman was previously a Teach First English teacher and Strategy Consultant at Boston Consulting Group. She joined CENTURY Tech as Chief Operating Officer in 2016 and is passionate about using technology to improve education.
When I started my career in teaching, I, like many new graduate teachers, had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. Teach First offered an opportunity to address the issue of stagnating social mobility; I could make a real difference to the lives of young people, and I could do it immediately.
Within a few weeks of the school term, that starry-eyed, naïve, young graduate was exhausted and dispirited; I was beginning to doubt whether I could convince Abdul to bring a pen to class, let alone transform the educational opportunities of the students I taught.
Teaching was, and still remains, the most difficult thing I have ever done. Don’t get me wrong – I loved teaching; I loved the students who made me laugh every day, and I loved the colleagues who worked tirelessly to improve the life chances of others. But it was incredibly difficult, and it didn’t feel sustainable. So, after three years and much soul-searching, I made the decision to leave the profession.
Unfortunately, I was not alone in finding teaching a challenge: in a recent survey of teachers, 82% of respondents reported that their workload was unmanageable. 74% have considered quitting within the next year. I have returned again and again to this dilemma: if good teaching is beneficial to society, then how can we make it a more sustainable career?
The vast majority of work that teachers do is not only incredibly difficult, but also incredibly important. Teachers are part-parent, part-social worker, part-psychologist. They must diagnose the myriad needs of the many young people they teach and then, not only identify, but administer the correct remedies – all at the same time, and usually within the framework of a rigid school timetable. These demands require professionals who are highly skilled and well supported, with the right tools at their disposal.
The tools of every professional worker have been drastically modernised over the past few decades thanks to rapid technological innovation. We can now access our banking, health information and order a taxi at the touch of a button – all via our mobile phone. In medicine, doctors and nurses can share images of scans or x-rays in real-time. They have electronic patient records, allowing patients to be tracked across time and healthcare environments, thus enabling a more efficient and effective healthcare system.
So what about education? Unfortunately the impact of technology in the classroom has been limited. There has been a shift from the blackboard to the interactive whiteboard and, more recently, the digitisation of curriculum materials, but overall, the sector has not benefited from technological advances to the same extent as other sectors.
Technological innovations are continuing apace however, and it looks like the latest innovation – AI – has the potential to make a real difference to the education sector. For a long time ‘AI’, or artificial intelligence, has been a buzzword associated predominantly with advanced robots that tread an ambiguous line between human and machine. AI is the broad concept of machines being able to carry out tasks in an intelligent way. General AI, in which machines can handle any task, does not yet exist. Specific AI however, where AI technology aims to solve one specific problem (a game of chess for example) does.
The ultimate goal of AI in education (AIEd), as defined by Pearson and UCL in their AIEd report (Intelligence Unleashed 2016), is to “give us deeper, and more fine-grained understandings of how learning actually happens.” The report states that three models lie at the heart of AIEd: the pedagogical (knowledge of effective teaching), the domain (subject knowledge) and the learner (knowledge of the learner). These three models feed AI algorithms that can then begin to compute how students learn, lessening achievement gaps, reducing the burden on teachers and equipping parents to better support their children’s learning.
One of the edtech players at the forefront of AIEd is CENTURY Tech, which uses AI technology to improve learning outcomes while reducing teacher workload. Its web based platform gathers vast quantities of data so it can ‘learn’ the best output (in this case, the optimal learning journey) for each student based on a range of inputs (their interactions with the platform). CENTURY uses this data to create a unique Recommended Learning Path for each student. The machine learning algorithms are constantly learning; every click, every interaction, every score on CENTURY is recorded and patterns of behaviour are analysed. The more a student uses the platform, the more CENTURY’s algorithms learn about the student and the more nuanced and accurate the recommendations become.
At the same time, CENTURY arms teachers with real-time learner data, enabling them to target interventions based on accurate and up-to-date information. According to the DfE, data management and marking are the biggest drivers of ‘unnecessary and unproductive tasks’ in a teacher’s day. CENTURY automates both these tasks for teachers.
Let’s be very clear – CENTURY does not and will never replace teachers. I do not envisage a future where technology is able to replace the humanity, empathy or ingenuity of a good teacher. CENTURY does enable teachers however, by freeing up their time so they can focus on what matters most.
When faced with a class of thirty plus students, all of whom have different learning needs, preferences and starting points, a teacher’s task can seem impossible. Having the right technological support may help make this monumental task manageable, and make the wonderful profession of teaching sustainable.