The new world of Artificial Intelligence is upon us and teaching may never be the same. That’s the upshot of a new report by Sam Sellar and Anna Hogan for Education International focusing on Pearson’s Plan for 2025 and its implications for teachers everywhere. The two researchers see dangers ahead with the introduction of AI into the teaching domain and warn of the further expansion of private interests, while embracing the need for technology-enhanced learning and implicitly accepting 21st century student-centred teaching pedagogies.
The world’s largest learning corporation, Pearson International, is pursuing a visionary plan to advance the “next generation ” of teaching and learning by developing cutting-edge digital learning platforms, including Artificial Intelligence in Education (AIEd). It is now piloting new AI technologies that will, in time, enable “virtual tutors’ to provide “personalized learning” to students, much like Siri or Alexa. The Pearson Plan for 2025 calls for this technology to be integrated into a single platform — Pearson Realize — that has been integrated into Google Classroom. The ultimate goal is to forge direct and lifelong relationships with Pearson product educational users to whom it will provide virtual schooling, professional certifications, assessments, and other services.
Pearson’s Plan for 2025 does raise alarm bells for teachers. The corporate strategy is premised upon causing “educational disruptions” with respect to 1) the teaching profession, 2) the delivery of curriculum and assessment, and 3) the function of schools, particularly those in the public sector. Such changes are unsettling for Sellar and Hogan, but they still laud the potential benefits of technology enhancements and their “combination with new kinds of teacher professionalism’
The underlying philosophy was expressed in a December 2014 Pearson policy paper prepared by Peter Hill and Michael Barber with a grandiose title, “Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment.” While Pearson marketing is decidedly teacher-friendly, the Hill and Barber paper belies that image, making a strong case for improving “teacher quality” as a pre-condition for “transforming teaching” and achieving better student outcomes. Here is how they described the desired transformation:
from a largely under-qualified and trained, heavily unionised, bureaucratically controlled semi-profession into a true profession with a distinctive knowledge base, a framework for teaching, well defined common terms for describing and analysing teaching at a level of specificity and strict control by the profession itself, on entry into the profession (Hill and Barber, 2014, 20).
Teaching, according to Hill and Barber, is also bedeviled by classroom practitioners who guard their autonomy. The problem was that teaching was an “imprecise and idiosyncratic process that is too dependent on the personal intuition and competence of individual teachers” (Hill and Barber, 38). That implied that most teachers cannot be trusted, despite their university education, professional registration, teaching certification, continuous professional learning, and professional standards of practice.
Teachers, it seems, were “the problem” in the eyes of Pearson education experts Hall and Barber. Transforming teaching for 21st century learning, it followed, required the “overthrowing” and “repudiating” of the “classroom teacher as the imparter of knowledge” and replacing them with “increasing reliance on sophisticated tutor/online instruction.’ ( Hill and Barber, 23). Computerized “personalized learning,” in their view, was the answer and the way of the future.
The Pearson Plan for 2025 does not, as the Education International researchers repeatedly point out, call for “replacing teachers.” They do recognize that the introduction of new technologies does carry certain risks such as the “routinisation of teaching tasks,” but also seem to accept the benefits of the new technologies for developing complementary skills. What is flagged is the dangers posed by the routinisation of teaching by Pearson and its subsidiaries in “low fee” private schools in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and parts of South-East Asia.
The Education International critique, oddly enough, gives the philosophy, program and assessment dimension of 21st century learning a free pass. “Many have called for the reform of schooling,” they note, ” to modernize this nineteenth century institution, particularly in regards to the provision of homogeneous curriculum, age-based learning, and traditional models of teacher-led instruction.” Such changes are fine with them unless they lead to the automation of teaching and the replacement of teachers with robots or virtual tutors.
Much of the rest of the Sellar and Hogan critique of Pearson 2025 is predictable and essentially well-founded. Technology-enhanced teaching and learning is part of the emerging “infrastructure of modernity” and, as such, needs to be confronted and tamed. While there is a place for Global Education Industry(GEI) giants like Pearson and Google, we do need to guard against potential problems and encroachments that further erode teaching as a profession. Their critique would have been considerably strengthened by citing the critical research of Ben Williamson, author of Big Data in Education, and a leading expert on the OECD’s plan to introduce “stealth assessment.”
Technology-driven education can lead to greater social inequalities, creeping privatization, displacement of teachers, spread of routinized teaching models, the illicit corporate collection of data, and the degradation of teaching into a personalized experience focused almost entirely on individual knowledge and skills.
International education researchers such as Sellar and Hogan still seem mesmerized by the allure of the “21st century learning” panacea, the new pedagogy of deep learning, and technological enhancements in the class room. There is still no real recognition that the purveyors of learning technology actually stand in the way of “future-proofing” the next generation.
What’s the real agenda of Pearson International’s global education plan for 2025? Where do classroom teachers fit in the “next generation” of teaching and learning? To what extent will teachers be displaced by robots in the friendly guise of “virtual tutors”? Should teachers put their faith in Pearson Education experts who are out to reduce the influence of “idiosyncratic” classroom practitioners and particularly those who favour explicit instruction and a “knowledge-rich curriculum”?