Tuesday, April 04, 2023

Are we on the verge of having a ‘Universal Teacher’?

But it can't do what teachers do well…. ChatGPT "Hold my beer...."


Universal Soldier is a film franchise that sees a series of soldiers, some melded with AI, to create a superhuman soldier. But what if we imagined something more useful and beneficial. In a world where we have a shortage of teachers, especially in poorer countries where teachers are scarce, poorly paid and class sizes huge, a Universal Teacher would be a Godsend. Not for very young children but certainly for more autonomous learners from secondary school onwards would surely benefit from a teacher that could teach anything to anyone, anyplace at anytime. 


The advent of universal internet access, globally, without any blind spots is now with us via ground and satellite services and the ubiquity of devices, many with AI chips, that allow edge computing, do things that were unimagnable only a few years ago, especially voice. The ecosystem is providing the technical means for Universal Teachers to emerge and thrive.


Universal Teacher is launched

That ChatGPT4 launched with Khan Academy and Duolingo as partners spoke volumes about its potential for teaching and learning. At the same time Bill Gates wrote a piece called The Age of AI, which despite referencing ‘learning styles’, saw education as the great net beneficiary of Generative AI. Salman Khan, who has been in this game for years, thinks the benefits are enormous and has already launched what could be described as a Universal Tutor in education. What has followed on Twitter was an explosion of innovative and often ingenious applications in teaching and learning around the world.

In just five months we have seen the release of GPT4, a moment in. our history when a new species of technology swept the world. 

Does our unease with this question simply indicates the dying days of human exceptionalism? Copernicus de-centred our species and threw us out into orbit, Darwin de-anchored us further to show we were just a smart ape. One way we got smart was to teach and learn. Yet that exchange has always used learning technologies; painting, writing, printing, internet and now AI. What Generative AI provides is a new pedAIgogy (see more on this), where monologue is replaced by dialogue, what good teachers do in classrooms, tailored to the needs of the learner, something that is difficult, if not impossible with previous technologies, in one-to-many teaching environments. 

A very real question is now on the table. To what degree can AI now replace teachers? That is seen by some as a disturbing question. It is in the sense of possibly dehumanising learning. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile thought experiment.

The old diad model of teachers and learners is long gone as technology has become a serious mediator, especially online Technology technology. We now have software that learns and can be taught. That, when they can teach, are two new kids on the block.


We have to remember that teaching is always a means to an end, that end being the improvement of the learner. It is easy to see teaching as an end in itself but it is not. As a profession it is difficult, hard work, sometimes distressing, often deeply satisfying. Yet the workload can be crushing, the psychological pressure oppressive and it is clearly a demanding job. It is difficult to sustain that pace over weeks, months, never mind years. That contributes to constant teacher shortages, especially in difficult to teach subjects like maths, science and foreign languages. Could technology be a solution to the crushing workload and recruitment problems? I think so. 


Right across the learning journey from learner engagement, learner support, content creation, content delivery, personalisation, accessible learning and assessment, AI, especially generative AI can deliver increasingly sophisticated learning. This is effortful, personalised learning, not as learning events but as a process.


Generative AI is coming close to delivering personalised tutoring, as good as say the tutors that middle-class parents frequently hire for their kids. I have been convinced of this for some time after seeing its effect in adaptive learning systems at University level in the US, where attainment rose, and dropout fell. The problem with these older adaptive systems is that they were difficult to build and populate. New generative AI is an entirely different beast. It is smart, very smart and as it has been trained on a vast repository of our stored culture, it is smart on all subjects. It is as if it had degrees in all subjects, with some teacher training on top.


Universal Teaching

In Khan Academies Khanmigo tuition across dozens of subjects are available to ignite your curiosity, at Elementary school, Middle school, High school and College levels. Paired with revision schedule software these systems would provide lasting and efficient learning support. You can even practice exams with open input and dialogue. You can ask for hints but the standard of dialogue is superb. This is where it gets interesting, like a full discussion with a good teacher, who knows every subject, in remarkable detail, available 24/7/365, all the way up to College level. Even at College level I can see how 101 courses could be delivered this way, then developed to cope with ever more complex aspects of a degree course. These systems need not be as good as teachers to reduce workload and provide real learning for learners across all subjects.



Along comes ChatGPT4 to deliver high quality, personalised Maths tuition. It gives you a maths problem, asks ‘What do you think the first step should be?’, accepts open input, identifies where you went wrong along with a suggestion to move forward. It even relates that maths problem to a subject you love, let’s say soccer. Maths is a difficult subject to teach and learn, a subject where catastrophic failure is common. Here is a system that pays attention to your every step, is engaging and endlessly patient. What’s not to like?


Language learning

Duolingo has tens of millions of active users and has used AI for some time, especially to determine practice patters with the half-life algorithms. They have partnered with ChatGPT4 two features that add two powerful pedagogic techniques to their teaching:

1. Explain My Answer, where, if you get something wrong in your second language

Duolingo gives you explanation and 'elaborates’ on what was wrong. It also delivers 'examples' to point you in right direction.

2. Roleplay, where chat with a native speaker who knows your level of competence

and uses human written scenarios to give you endless and much needed practice and immersion. Once completed, each roleplay session gives you a report to suggest improvements.

The ease of translation in LLM models also helps deliver a second language, as it can be readily translated.


Critical thinking

Even critical thinking is taught, where you debate against ChatGPT. You present your arguments, it counters, and the debate continues, endlessly knowledgeable, positive, patient and helpful. This Socratic approach to learning plays to our natural propensity toward talking to each other. It is as if we now have a universal Socrates. Debate, a s a formal taxing of the mind, the chess of ideas, where a motion id debated to explore its strengths, weaknesses and limits is not new. To play such mental chess with a machine is what is new.


Dialogue with the Greats

Conversations, real dialogue, with dozens of intellectual figures from the past are also available, including scientists like Isaac Newton and Marie Curie, Presidents from Washington to Lincoln, authors like William Shakespeare and Mark Twain, historical figures such as Genghis Khan and Napoleon. As the works of almost all past intellectuals and figures of note have been used to train the model, it can speak as if it were that person. This is on a par with original sources and provides a less dry and text based inroad into the subject. To hear theories and opinions expressed by the person who initiated these thoughts and theories, is surely a novel pedAIgogic approach.


Even fictional characters are available, such as Greek Gods like Zeus and  Achilles, Shakespearian characters from Macbeth to Othello and characters from novels such as Mr Darcy to Jay Gatsby, also Dr Frankenstein and Don Quixote. This is an interesting and novel vector into great literature, being able to chat with, interrogate and explore a character, maybe several characters in a work. This is surely a new type of what I’ve called pedAIgogy. 


Learning difficulties

Another feature of the Universal Teacher would be sensitivity to accessibility issues. With sight and hearing impairment, text to speech and speech to text through AI delivered via smartphones have already been transformative. ChatGPT was launched with the astounding Bemyeyes app. Dyslexia, autism, ADHD and learning difficulties have all shown some signs of being diagnosed by AI and generative AI can deliver content sensitive to the needs of such learners. 


We humans are deeply biased, the biases being largely part of the way the brain has evolved. Daniel Kahneman got a Nobel Prize for uncovering many of these biases and sees them as ‘uneducable’. AI, on the other hand, learns and need not have these biases. It need not ‘know’ the sex, race, cultural background, accent or socio-economic status of a learner. Fairness can be developed as we proceed. This I see as a distinct advantage of the Universal teacher – its lack of bias.


Teacher workload

For teachers it can create lesson hooks, lesson plans, assessments, rubrics for assessments, almost any piece of planning and paperwork can be done using Generative AI. As a tool to reduce workload, it has huge potential. This must surely be one of its first deployments.



Imagine being able to do all of the above in almost any language. That is becoming possible. An underestimated feature of ChatGPT and LLMs is translation. That's a global feature for services and products that has huge human benefits. Massive reductions in costs possible through AI here. We would have far less students having to learn, and often struggle to learn in a second language, although that option would still be open, even a blend of languages would be possible.



We don’t yet have a Universal Teacher (UT), what we have is a Universal Teaching Assistant UTA). But the Universal teacher is now on the horizon. Difficult to tell how far that horizon is but we have seen the exponential growth of generative AI in just a few months from a good but still error prone service to something far more accurate that has reach across all subjects and has moved technology from embodying simple pedagogic principles such exposition, knowledge assessment, scenario based learning and spaced practice towards new pedAIgogies, such as tutoring, teaching, lesson creation, multimodal content creation, learning support, dialogue, error correction, language immersion and debate.


Generative AI will only get better, not only on parameter size, which has proved to be exponentially useful above a certain threshold. Size does matter but so do all the other tools that go into making a Universal Teacher – combinations with web search, maths solvers, and other tools. We are seeing ensembles of technologies create learning tools that solve the problems of provenance, accuracy and efficiency. Generative AI may be the beating heart of the Universal teacher but it has many other weapons it can employ.

An experiment is already underway in the partnership with Khan Academy and OpenAI, with a much in schools already underway. They are taking it carefully, which is right. We will see more of this, AI tutors, like Khanmigo, on all subjects, for all ages.


Speculating further, future developments will surely see the embodiment of such teachers as avatars inside 3D virtual worlds, where learning by doing can also occur. We will learn within Digital Twins of the workplace, airport or hospital ward with virtual customers or patients. That is the subject of my next book. The Universal Doctor is surely a spin off, an entity that can investigate, diagnose and treat anyone anywhere.


In one way the Universal Teacher is not a teacher at all, it is the learner learning from the cultural achievements from the past. The Universal teacher is us being taught by our own hivemind, a supermind. This is not a mind like ours but it does mediate what we already know so that we can all progress. We can all be in this together. We are being taught by our collective self and that may be the fundamental beauty of this idea.


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