University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Struck and his teaching assistant Cat Gillespie teach a class during a live recording of a massive, open, online class.
University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Struck and his teaching assistant Cat Gillespie teach a class during a live recording of a massive, open, online class.

Ashok Goel uses the internet in almost all of the classes he teaches. Every term, more than 300 graduate students take his class on artificial intelligence (AI).

The students never meet in person. All of the classes take place online -- through a website. The site lets students ask questions and complete their work from anywhere in the world.

Having hundreds of students in a class means Goel, a professor with the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, answers thousands of questions. He has eight teaching assistants, but that is not enough to help all the students.

In January, Goel noted that his students often asked the same questions. In spring 2016, he added a new member to his teaching team: Jill Watson. She was able to answer questions faster than most other teaching assistants. And she was available 24 hours a day.

It was only at the end of the semester that Goel?s students learned Watson?s secret: Jill Watson is an AI computer program.

Goel says only two students came close to realizing Watson?s true identity. And once they learned Watson?s identity, they were excited.

"They not only asked that question about Jill: ?Is she an AI Once the identity of Jill was revealed they also asked if I was an AI."

Goel now uses Watson in two other classes, but does not tell his students which of his teaching assistants is a computer program. He hopes this technology will make it easier for teachers to create their own programs.

Using computer programs and bots is becoming less unusual.

A website called Campus Technology publishes stories about how colleges and universities use new technology. In August, the site published a survey of more than 500 professors and their use of technology.

Fifty-five percent of the professors said they ask students to use study materials online before coming to class. And, more than 70 percent said they combine online materials with teaching in their classrooms.

Goel says new technology will increase the availability of learning worldwide. But there are some concerns about how well the technology works.

SRI International is a non-profit research organization. In April, the group released the results of a survey of educational technology at 14 colleges. The study measured the effect of online classwork. The study found that the technology did little to help student performance.

Louise Yarnall is a senior research social scientist at SRI International. She says there are two major problems. First, she says, the technology has yet to reach a level that proves how useful it can be. Second, there is no system to make sure the technology is used the same way.

Yarnall notes that students and teachers all use the special programs in different ways. This means they may not be using the technology as best they can.

"Just like in school when teacher says, ?Do your homework,? we have found that students who do their homework tend to do pretty well in school, and students who don?t do their homework often don?t do so well in school. And the same idea applies here with adaptive learning. If you don?t use it, you don?t progress."

Yarnall said she worries that technology in the classroom will become the focus over the subjects being taught.

Jose Bowen goes even further. Bowen is the president of Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. He wrote a book arguing against the use of technology in classrooms. It is called ?Teaching Naked.?

Bowen admits that technology improves the availability of information. But, he notes, technology will go mostly to people who have money to pay for it.

Bowen also warns that giving students more information through the internet or social media does not help them understand how to use that information. He says the job of a college is to teach people how to think critically.

Technology can bring teachers to students all over the world, as in the case of Ashok Goel?s class at Georgia Tech. But Bowen notes that online classes do little for students with limited educational experience.

"So those tools are there. But the problem is that online content by itself doesn?t know how to ask you the question ?What interests you? What motivates you ? The first thing a good swim teacher does is ask you a couple of questions. The first question is, ?How do you feel about water And if you don?t like water, then I change my lesson plan. ? And if you love water, well maybe I push you in the deep end."

Bowen says teachers must accept the many things technology can do that they cannot. But he and Goel agree that nothing can replace the personal relationship between teachers and students. And the training in the classrooms of today may be the only thing that prepares students for the technology of tomorrow.



This story was first featured on VOA Learning English.

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