Favourite Teacher Awards: Schools trialling robotic tutor Amy find she can't replace human teachers – yet video

Anuja Nadkarni / Stuff.co.nz

The relationship between AI and teachers to become symbiotic, Nolden says.

FAVOURITE TEACHER AWARDS: From the Christchurch quake tragedy to Parliament's select committees, we're travelling the country to meet some of New Zealand's best teachers. Nominations are now open for the Favourite Teacher Awards – tell us about the teacher who has inspired you or your children.

From Dumbledore in Harry Potter, to Mr Holland in Mr Holland's Opus, to Miss Honey in Roald Dahl's famous Matilda, great teachers inspire us all – but Kiwi IT developers are giving teaching a hi-tech upgrade.

Schoolkids struggling with maths are now being tutored by an artificial intelligence robot named Amy.

Amy's co-creator Raphael Nolden said eventually students would be able to personalise their tutor to look like their ...
OSNOVA/SUPPLIED

Amy's co-creator Raphael Nolden said eventually students would be able to personalise their tutor to look like their favourite teacher

So could a robot ever be as good as the real thing? The Amy prototype being trialled in 10 high schools around the country is a friendly cycloptic animation. She can't provide a shoulder to cry on like Rosie from The Jetsons. And (danger, Will Robinson!) – she won't save you from your own mistakes.

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But she is still evolving and could soon be personalised by students to look like their favourite teacher.  A new version of Amy is set to release into more schools around the country in Term 3.

Chris Elles with his sons, Ash and Aiden, using the AI maths teacher Amy.
SUPPLIED

Chris Elles with his sons, Ash and Aiden, using the AI maths teacher Amy.

The tutoring business Osnova has raised about $100,000 in capital so far and hopes to raise at least $300,000 from investors at this week's demo day set up by small business accelerator programme, Flux.

Co-founder Raphael Nolden insisted Amy was not intended to replace a real teacher, but rather to partner the teacher.  "We know the most effective way is for humans to work with AI," he said. "It's much better than humans by themselves or AI by themselves."

"Humans have a lot of qualities that are important for a teacher. I see a shift in the role of teachers of what they want to do and give away their other tasks to AI to help them. And I see a nice symbiotic relationship between the two."

Osnova founders, Jurgen Brandstetter, Antonia Modkova and Raphael Nolden have created an AI maths tutor named Amy.
SUPPLIED

Osnova founders, Jurgen Brandstetter, Antonia Modkova and Raphael Nolden have created an AI maths tutor named Amy.

Christchurch dad Chris Elles discovered the Amy prototype on social media and signed up his sons Aiden, 12, and Ash, 10. ​

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This week, nominations open for the New Zealand Favourite Teacher Awards, in association with Stuff, TVNZ Breakfast and Matilda, the musical. But it's fair to say, Chris Elles won't be nominating Amy for an award – not yet.

He was blunt: "It would be stupid to think robots will replace teachers. The technology will let teachers see the individualised data to understand their students. If parents and teachers can see the data they can have more accurate feedback about how the student is performing."

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Elles said his sons use Amy in addition to other online maths learning platforms, but they enjoy her individual feedback and interactive nature. The boys are now above average in their classes, as Amy tutors them through Year 11 algebra.

In a Stuff investigation ahead of next week's major Visible Learning conference in Vancouver, Canada, world-renowned New Zealand educationalist Professor John Hattie says teachers are the biggest single influence on children's success – far more than their schools, their families, technology and the other factors that parents often place weight on. 

Ad a new Unicef report says good teaching is "inextricably linked" to better education outcomes and needs to be treated as a high-status profession: "Effective teachers can transform lives". 

Amy provides help at each stage of problem solving
amy.ac

Amy provides help at each stage of problem solving

So do robotic tutors celebrate teaching as a high-status profession, or turn it into a n automated production line?

Nolden, a former lecturer of mathematical modelling at the University of Canterbury, created Amy with computer science and law tutor Antonia Modkova, and human-robot interaction expert Jurgen Brandstetter. The creators say they drew on research from world leaders in education, and have worked with a number of New Zealand maths teachers.

The current tutoring framework being tested is for Year 11 NCEA maths students, but in the future Amy will also include the Cambridge curriculum and an expansion into other subjects such as physics and chemistry. Nolden said one of the big advantages of AI teachers, over human teachers, was that they could be re-programmed for different subjects.

Once the AI bot is fully developed, Osnova aims to provide tutoring support for students with different learning capabilities and could also evolve into speaking with students.

Amy can also create individualised tests and mark those tests, easing the pressure on teachers' workloads.

"Pairing teachers with AI can create a much more effective learning process for students," Nolden said. "No one became a teacher to do paperwork, so computer systems can do that while teachers can get feedback to correct mistakes or misconceptions." 

 - Sunday Star Times

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