Busting the myths of AI in education

Jayne Mullane of Mersey Vale Primary School believes AI (artificial intelligence) has a place in the classroom

When you mention Artificial Intelligence (AI), you’re likely to get a variety of responses ranging from the fear that robots will take over our jobs – and our lives – to the conviction that it will transform our future for the better. Now that AI is becoming an integral part of organisations such as NASA, the NHS and even your local council, is it time for education to embrace the power of AI?

I believe that it is. While algorithms will never be a substitute for a good teacher, there are some exciting new ways that AI can help schools to spot patterns of progress, or identify pupils who are having difficulties with their learning.

A different perspective

Take literacy, for instance. Many pupils have reading difficulties which can slow down their progress in the rest of the curriculum, making it difficult for them to catch up with their classmates as they move through primary school and beyond.

Mersey Vale, like any other school, uses traditional methods to uncover reading difficulties in our pupils and address them. However, we decided to look into an AI-based technology to complement the reading comprehension tests and teacher assessments that help us evaluate our pupils’ reading.

An innovative system that tracks pupils’ eye movements as they read is helping us to identify children who struggle with reading and enabling us to give them targeted support.

Deeper understanding

Technology from Lexplore, for example, records how a child’s eyes move as they read a piece of text, tracking how long the eyes stay on a particular word, and how quickly they move forwards and backwards across a series of words.

If a child focuses on a single word for a long time, or their eyes move slowly as they read, this may be an indication of reading difficulties. Knowing this, we can put support in place to strengthen their literacy skills.

And the beauty of machine learning technology is that it can get better the more it is used. The tool can be trained how children read, so as more schools start to use it, the more accurate picture of pupils’ reading attainment will be in the future.

Freeing up time for teachers

It may sound complicated, but the process is remarkably simple. AI is supposed to free people up to focus on their uniquely human skills, and that is exactly what we found. The tests themselves are very quick to administer, a few minutes per child, which saves time for teachers, enabling them to spend time with the child rather than the testing process.

And although much brainpower and research has gone into developing the eye-tracking technology, the test itself is fun to do. The pupils enjoy the test because it is carried out on the computer, the reading material is interesting, and it is a change from the format they are used to.

Sharing insight with parents

But one of the main benefits for us in turning to AI, was that the technology helped us uncover information we previously didn’t know.

The tests revealed that one of our KS2 pupils was having reading difficulties. But because they were very capable and had developed ways to get by, such as guessing parts of the stories rather than reading them, we hadn’t spotted her difficulties.

We shared the results of the test with the pupil’s mother, who had difficulties with her own reading but had not been diagnosed with dyslexia until later in life and so she was very keen to help her child.

We have changed the reading materials we give to the pupil in school and at home, so they are highly interesting but with shorter passages of text. This way we can build on the pupil’s skills as a reader and ensure they do not get left behind by providing them with unsuitable materials. The progress the pupil has made since we made the change has been impressive and it is food for thought that it may have taken a few months or terms before we spotted the issue ourselves as her coping strategies were so highly developed.

So AI does have an important role to play in the classroom, in giving schools a fresh view on how to help their pupils. And not, for the moment at least, by populating the staff room with robots.


Jayne Mullane is headteacher of Mersey Vale Primary School, which uses Lexplore to assess pupils’ reading.

For more information please visit www.lexplore.co.uk

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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