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AI can end inequality in public schools

An investment in classroom AI is an investment in our future.

When artificial intelligence is discussed in the media, it is often portrayed as an expensive technology that will only benefit the elite who are wealthy enough to invest in AI business or purchase high tech products. News outlets, politicians, and even some field experts seem to think that it will be a long time before working class Americans see some (if any) direct benefit from the “fourth industrial revolution.” That view may be overly pessimistic, as engineers and entrepreneurs continue to come up with inexpensive smart technologies that have the potential to revolutionize life for America’s poor and middle class. One such technology aims to keep a promise that has been made (and broken) in public schools across the country since 2002; to leave no child left behind.

Photo by Julia M Cameron

One of the biggest challenges that teachers face regarding disadvantaged students is simply knowing what students need. This is especially true in elementary schools where children are often not independent enough to ask for help with a specific material or open up about problems at home. Studies show that teachers often misdiagnose children with emotional and or learning disorders as simply disobedient, undisciplined, or lazy. Teachers are even more likely to misdiagnose disadvantaged students when they are minorities. A recent study found that black students are much more likely to “be seen as problematic” and punished at school than white students, even when they portray comparable behavior. The effect of unequal punishment is compounded by the fact that minority students are more likely to come from single-parent families, suffer from emotional distress, and experience chronic hunger, all of which can negatively impact a child’s ability to learn. Teachers in the US have a hard time discerning when a student needs extra attention or outside help, and often attempt to address problems in the classroom using punishment, not encouragement.

Photo by Christina Morillo

Some teachers treat students poorly just based on race and poverty. However, even teachers who treat their students with equal care and respect have a difficult time knowing when and what sort of help disadvantaged students need in order to not fall behind. This is where AI technology can help.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was some way to know what sort of problems a student was dealing with, and what methods would best help her? Well, there might be a way to do just that. Some schools in Europe and Asia have already begun using facial analyses tools to detect when students struggle in the classroom. One school in France uses Nestor software to record when students tend to pay attention, and more importantly, when they don’t. This data is then used to help professors adapt their teaching style to make learning easier for students.

Schools in China use what they call “smart eyes” to track student behavior in class rooms. This may sound like an Orwellian nightmare, but the data isn’t just used to punish students for misbehaving behind teachers’ backs. The main purpose of this technology is to identify when students are experiencing abnormal levels of stress, have a hard time staying awake, or display warning signs of illness. Teachers can then use this data to help identify children who could benefit from different teaching styles or outside help.

In the United States, this technology could be regulated to protect data from being stored for long periods of time or being sold/distributed. AI classroom helpers could close the gap that leaves disadvantaged children behind. Parents might be hesitant to allow smart technology into the classroom, but under the right supervision it stands to make a world of difference for our most precious commodity. An investment in classroom AI is an investment in our future.

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