In her main stage presentation at SSAT’s National Conference in December, CENTURY Tech Founder and CEO Priya Lakhani OBE described the inspiration for her learning resource platform, which is based on artificial intelligence, neuroscience and learning science.
Should robots run our schools? Well, I’m not particularly sure I would send either my six- or eight-year-old to a school led by the Decepticons. But what exactly is a robot? It is a machine that automatically completes complex tasks by combining artificial intelligence with large amounts of data. This isn’t some nebulous concept – it’s simply a practical system designed to perform functions traditionally performed by humans.
If you feed such a system with enough data, that machine begins to learn from experience. Every time you use something like Google, these systems track your usage and analyse patterns and correlations in your and other users’ behaviours. If it picks up a statistically significant pattern, then the machine begins to learn to operate certain functions without explicit instructions. This is known as machine learning – one application of artificial intelligence. For example, when we use apps to find hotels abroad, we are bombarded with options based on our previous online behaviour. If the app immediately suggests four-stars in New York it is because it has figured out that you have a decent income and were recently browsing museums in the city. You use machine learning and artificial intelligence – and by its nature it uses you – every single day. Consciously or not, we all use artificial intelligence to help us make better decisions, to be more efficient, and to help us solve our problems every day.
Priya Lakhani OBE began her career as a libel barrister before launching a social enterprise, Masala Masala, raising money for charitable causes. In 2015, she founded CENTURY Tech, which focuses on artificial intelligence, big data, and neuroscience to personalise learning for more students, more fully than ever before
As we all know, education is about ensuring all children leave school with opportunity and choice. It is not simply about drilling a curriculum into their heads. But ensuring children go on to fulfil their potential requires a serious amount of resource – especially time.
Teachers are constantly assessing and micro-marking – both of which gather data. On top of planning, regulations and accountability, to name a few, data-related tasks have contributed to the fully-blown crisis in teacher workloads across the world.
While many aspects of teaching cannot be replaced – the brilliance of the individual teacher, and the human connection that is vital to inspiring children, for example – many of the more routine, data-related tasks can now be completed using artificial intelligence. That is why I started CENTURY Tech – a platform that allows teachers to focus on actually teaching. Teachers can put their own content onto the platform, or use its extensive existing library created by our expert teachers. Children then use it to learn subject matter and answer questions – the system tracks each user’s strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences. It knows if you’re guessing, hesitating or skipping, and can often identify the reasons for such behaviour. Through the tiny differences in timings of mouse movements or keyboard actions, for example, it can sense whether the user may have SEND.
Not only does the machine know when a child may need additional help, it also identifies appropriate interventions that teachers can immediately access and deploy.
Teachers tell us that one of the toughest parts of succeeding in teaching is getting to know the strengths and weakness of a new class. On average, I am told, this process takes about eight weeks. With CENTURY, students take a diagnostic test and the machine identifies who needs support. Everyone who needs to be involved has access to this information and you can see straight away how Oscar is doing with the skill-set required in this subject. It tells you his strengths, his weaknesses and what he needs to focus on. Teachers can then go into the detailed dashboard and see how he’s doing throughout the curriculum. The teacher can then tell Oscar that he struggled with something because he only spent 37 seconds on the content, skipped a few questions and put little effort into answering.
This has been built to reduce teacher workload and our research shows it saves, on average, six hours per week. This was one of the most interesting outcomes from our work involving hundreds of schools in the UK.
So, it is time to embrace technology – but it could not be further from being about a robot replacing us. It’s about using tools and technology that we use every single day on our phones, when we’re shopping, searching, or making friends on social networks, to free up teachers’ time in order to actually teach.
To assess CENTURY’s impact, we partnered with UCL on a study which found that students across the board increased their understanding by, on average, 30% when using CENTURY. The differences in test outcomes from students on the old Level 2s and 3s, from key stage 2, compared to the Level 6, was traditionally 50%. After two years of using CENTURY, there was only a 20% difference. My favourite finding, however, is that pupil premium students performed just as well as their peers.
Another important feature of CENTURY is the ability to give students audio and video feedback. When you’re in the system doing assignments, you can get children to record straight into their devices. For example, a primary school teacher puts homework on CENTURY every week by reading from a book into CENTURY. Students just tap ‘audio’, the recording plays, and they can record their responses. That is really important because it gives clear evidence of the reading the child is doing at home, for instance, as part of tracking their progress.
With artificial intelligence’s natural language processing, the machine can then spot whether the child is pronouncing things correctly and flag up responses. Teachers have audio and video functionality when they give feedback to homework, too.
We built that into the platform because it takes teachers a long time to write feedback, which is arguably the most important part of homework. Our teachers find that giving audio or video feedback is much less time-consuming than writing it. It also can be more beneficial for the child to hear feedback, too – as written feedback lacks context and emotion.
Our teachers find that giving audio or video feedback is much less time-consuming than writing it.
In short, CENTURY’s artificial intelligence platform is about using technology to augment and enhance teaching.
If we want to see a change in how our teachers feel when they’re teaching, to arm them with analysed data so that they can make appropriate interventions, to ensure that every child is offered differentiation as and when they need it, then we have to embrace technology.
Thanking Priya Lakhani for her stimulating contribution, SSAT chief executive Sue Williamson announced a new project, with the working title Project Transformation, for teachers and schools to explore and contribute to the development of the CENTURY Tech platform in schools.
“We will invite schools to volunteer to join our project. And I think it’s fair to say we can guarantee that it will be an interesting time and it will make a difference to the students,” Sue concluded.