Your move, teachers

If a machine can beat a chess champion, surely it would make an awesome tutor. The possibilities are enormous, although a Techno Teacher will never replace flesh and blood, says Ken Spencer
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The Independent Online
The victory of Deep Blue over Garry Kasparov has produced the response "frightening" from several colleagues in education, even those who are keen to prevent the Luddite view against calculators prevailing in David Reynolds' numeracy task force. Deep Blue, surely related to Deep Thought in The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, has fulfilled the expectations that Shannon and Weaver exposed in their theory of information, published just 50 years ago. They tentatively suggested that information theory could lead to intelligent systems tackling the supreme game of chess. Their work stemmed from the advances made in communication systems during the Second World War, and the impact of new computer methods for breaking codes. It was also related to the concept of feedback in machines, based on work with rockets and missiles, proposed by the father of cybernetics, Norbert Weiner, in 1946.

The greatest impact of Deep Blue's achievement is likely to be in the field of education. Forget the hype about the Internet - it is just a system for distributing information; it is not going to have much of an impact on education in terms of raising pupils' performances. There is already too much information bombarding us from too many sources. The key to education is assimilating information to create new mental schemes, which enable us to look at the world anew, to go beyond the obvious. And how do we do this, how does this mental construction come about? By entering into a dialogue with the world, the physical world and the social world, as suggested by Piaget and Vygotsky.

One way in which we extend the capabilities of the child is to have him or her enter into a dialogue with an expert who can answer questions, provide hints, set expectations. The expert has traditionally been the teacher, but there has been a search for mechanical means to do the same job, just as there were searches for mechanical devices to play chess.

Skinner, the American learning theorist, was the most effective early proselytiser of mechanical methods using feedback mechanisms, demonstrating his teaching machines in 1954. He argued that a country that could mass- produce washing machines and cars could surely develop a machine for providing sufficient feedback to students to enable them to reach set levels of performance, especially in basic numeracy and literacy. Programmed learning was successful, there can be no doubt about that, but it achieved its results through a rather boring process. Later computerised methods, using essentially the same limited psychology, have shown themselves to be as effective as teachers, and in some cases even more effective.

Research at Hull has demonstrated just what can be achieved with low- cost computers in teaching and assessing literacy and numeracy. Chris Singleton has demonstrated that computerised testing of very young children can identify those who are most at risk - and who would not be detected, under normal circumstances, until it was almost too late for remediation. Janet Duffin's reports on the Calculator Awareness Number (CAN) project show how calculators can be used as number laboratories that encourage children to experiment with numbers in such a way that their understanding astonishes both teachers and parents. Negative numbers? No problem, conceptually, for children as young as six or seven when using calculators. My work, with computerised reading recovery programmes, has shown that children who have not started reading by the age of 10 can rapidly achieve basic competence, enhancing their self-esteem and enthusiasm for work.

Following the successful trials of Integrated Learning Systems by the National Council for Educational Technology, many schools are now turning to the computer in the hope that programmes of study such as those found in SuccessMaker will improve performance, advancing students by up to 18 months on basic language and maths skills. More is to come, and it will come soon. Already it has been demonstrated that artificial intelligence (AI) systems can teach, or rather tutor, as effectively as human tutors in advanced courses. Intelligent tutor systems are now being used in college level maths courses, helping students to gain understanding of the complexities of geometry proofs. These computer-based tutors, using diagnostic modelling procedures, have been found to be as capable as their human counterparts at identifying and correcting student misunderstandings, even in the complex, advanced field of avionics.

Artificial intelligence systems, such as Deep Blue, are not just using raw number-crunching computing power, in the form of plotting out every single possibility from a given move; they also learn from experience and develop powerful rules and strategies, which when applied may be even more effective than those used by the human experts whose skills have been tapped by the computer.

Artificial intelligence tutoring systems will get to know their pupils, and will have extracted rules and strategies for optimal methods of teaching. Pupils will have the very best of tutors. Deep Blue's victory shows that the potential for sophisticated dialogues with an understanding, motivating, superior intelligence are truly awesome. There can be no doubt that just as the filing cabinet size of the first teaching computers was reduced, within a few years, to that of the watch on my wrist, so Deep Blue will shrink to sit on a child's desk, early in the next millennium. And teachers, what will become of them? Teachers will always be needed, because of the human touch, but their role will change; it may even become more rewarding.

It is likely that calculators will soon be banned in our primary classrooms. This is not the way forward for an advanced nation. We must embrace the new technologiesn

The writer is lecturer in educational technology, School of Education, Hull University, and author of 'Media and Technology in Education: Raising Academic Standards' (Manutius Press, 1996).

The CAN project is described in 'Calculators in the classroom', by Janet Duffin, Manutius Press, 1996.