Comment: AI applications taking over professional tasks

Among the many, many tasks required of grade school teachers is that of gauging each student’s reading level, usually by a time-consuming and high-pressure one-on-one examination. Microsoft’s new Reading Progress application takes some of the load off the teacher’s shoulders, allowing kids to do their reading at home and using natural language understanding to help highlight obstacles and progress.

Coldewey, D. (2021). Microsoft’s Reading Progress makes assessing reading levels easier for kids and teachers. Techcrunch.

There are three things I found noteworthy in this article. The first is that we’re going to see natural language processing built into all digital systems at some point, and while we currently have legitimate concerns around privacy when that data is analysed off-site, as on-device processing becomes the norm there’ll be few privacy concerns to deal with. This is an example of the kinds of NLP integration with platforms like MS Teams that will soon be ubiquitous. There are several links to additional resources on this technology at the end of the Techcrunch article.

The second point that I thought was noteworthy, and which I think is far more important, comes from the now mandatory caveat that:

It’s not meant to replace the teacher altogether, of course — it’s a tool that allows overloaded educators to prioritize and focus better and track things more objectively.

What the author isn’t saying is that all professions are basically collections of tasks and that as you incrementally replace those tasks with automated systems, what is your professional role going to be? I’m not suggesting that teaching consists solely of the tasks (e.g. grading a learner’s reading progress) but if your value add is “empathy”, “listening”, “care”, etc. then what exactly is it that makes you a teacher?

And finally, in addition to highlighting this particular application of AI in education, the article also points us to another post that describes several other areas where Microsoft is developing new products in the education domain. I’m more than a little concerned that Microsoft, Google, Facebook, etc. are building the platforms that we’re increasingly going to see introduced into classrooms. The pandemic has pushed everyone into Teams, Zoom, Meet, etc. and no-one is going to walk away from what they’ve become used to, so we’ll see these platforms further embedded into daily operations in secondary and higher education.

On a related note, I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of an article I wrote with Dave Nicholls and Jay Shaw, entitled How to replace a physiotherapist: AI and the redistribution of expertise, which has been accepted at Physiotherapy Theory and Practice.

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Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.