Some while ago I was reading a book about the future of universities in the digital age. One of its suggestions was that future institutions would be using ‘JITAITS’ – ‘just in time artificially intelligent tutors’. These ‘tutors’ would be advanced computer programs which would recognise questions from students and use algorithms to answer them. Even more advanced programs would detect problems a student was having online and intervene with appropriate actions.
I was reminded of this by a recent announcement from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US that it had developed such a program for a course on – naturally – artificial intelligence (AI). The program is called ‘Jill Watson’ (as it used the IBM ‘Watson’ platform) and was developed over several years by looking at the questions posted on the course online discussion forums and feeding ‘Jill’ the answers. She (it) was pretty useless at first but it’s now claimed she (it) can answer students’ questions with a 97% certainty. Apparently students have only just learned that Jill is a program but are happy with the discovery.
Another recent online teaching development involves using webcams. The idea is that a student’s webcam could be used to focus on the student’s face and use sophisticated software to detect when the student was experiencing difficulties. Presumably the program could analyse expressions such as puzzlement, frustration, boredom – even anger. The program would then send an appropriate response. Part of me toys with the idea that a mild electric shock delivered via the keyboard would work, but let me stay serious. For the OU is apparently working on such a program, although a commercial version already exists – see www.emotuit.com.
I wonder, though, if the use of webcams this way is really a good idea. I’m reminded of the recent incident from Philadelphia in the US where a college generously gave all its students laptops with webcams. The college neglected to tell students (and their families) that it had retained the ability to switch the webcams on secretly. You can imagine the storm of protest when this was inevitably discovered. And ever since I learnt that it’s possible for scammers to turn on your webcam secretly I’ve kept a handy blob of Blu-Tack to put over mine when not using it.
So is your tutoring job at risk? Are you about to be replaced by an artificial intelligence program? Well, I checked back on the book I read and discovered that it had been published in 2003. So if it’s taken 13 years for the first fairly primitive ‘just in time artificially intelligent tutor’ to arrive then I wouldn’t worry just yet. And a report in 2013 on which jobs are most likely to be computerised in the next few years found that ‘higher education teacher’ was amongst the least likely to be automated. (‘Telemarketer’ was the most likely, but surely that’s already happened.) So I suspect that except for some fairly specific topics (such as AI) human beings will be needed in online education for many years to come.