Education: the hardest sector to automate

Syndicated from (Raya Bidshahri) with permission, edited by Mann Made Media.

We’ve all heard the warnings: automation will disrupt entire industries and put millions of people out of jobs. Up to 45 per cent of existing jobs can already be automated using current technology. However, this may not apply to the education sector. After analysing more than 2 000 work activities for more than 800 occupations, McKinsey & Co. reported that of all the sectors examined, “the technical feasibility of automation is lowest in education.”

There’s no doubt that technology will continue to have a powerful impact on global education, both by improving the learning experience and by increasing global access to education. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), chatbot tutors, and AI-powered lesson plans are a few examples of the digital transformation in global education. But will robots and artificial intelligence ever fully replace teachers?

The first-ever Singularity University South Africa Summit (23-24 August 2017) on the African continent aims to equip attendees with exponential knowledge and understanding about how to tackle the country’s and continent’s grand challenges, such as the lack of quality education, high unemployment rates, food security, disaster relief, governance to name a few, through practical and applicable teachings. Thought leaders and industry specialists from various sectors, such as education, healthcare, finance, and energy will present at this thought-provoking summit.

Sizwe Nxasana is the founder of Sifiso Learning Group, which is involved in Edtech and academic publishing, and also founded Future Nation Schools – a chain of affordable private schools in South Africa. He holds education in very high esteem and has a BCom, BCompt (Hons), CA (SA) qualifications and has also been conferred with honorary doctorates by the University of Fort Hare, the Durban University of Technology, the University of Johannesburg and the Walter Sisulu University. Nxasana is the co-founder and chairman of the National Education Collaboration Trust and was appointed chairman of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. He is also chairman of the Ministerial Task Team that’s developing a new funding model for students who come from poor and “missing middle” backgrounds. Nxasana understands the importance of education and its impact on individuals – especially women and children from disadvantaged backgrounds – the economy, and how it positively affects prosperity, future economic growth and social stability. All of which makes his more than qualified and experienced to speak about the future of education at the inaugural Singularity University South Africa Summit.

The Most Difficult Sector to Automate

While tasks revolving around education – like administration or facilities maintenance – are open to automation, teaching is not.

Effective education involves more than just the transfer of information from teacher to student. Good teaching requires complex social interactions and adaptation to each student’s learning needs and their cultural-social context. An effective teacher is not just responsive to each student’s strengths and weaknesses, but is also empathetic towards their state of mind. Teachers aim to maximise human potential. Vienne Ming, SU Faculty member of Cognitive Neuroscience, will be speaking on that very topic at the Summit in South Africa.

Students also rely on teachers for life guidance and career mentorship. Deep and meaningful human interaction is crucial, and very difficult, if not impossible, to automate. Automating teaching would require artificial general intelligence (as opposed to narrow or specific intelligence). It would require an AI that understands natural human language, can be empathetic towards emotions, plan, strategise and make impactful decisions under unpredictable circumstances. This would be the kind of machine that can do anything a human can do, and it doesn’t exist – yet.

Getting There


Just because it’s difficult to fully automate teaching, doesn’t mean AI experts aren’t trying.

Jill Watson, a teaching assistant at Georgia Institute of Technology, is an IBM-powered artificial intelligence that’s being implemented in universities around the world. She is able to answer students’ questions with 97 per cent accuracy. Technologies like this also have applications in grading and providing feedback. Some AI algorithms are being refined to perform automatic essay scoring. One project has achieved a 0.945 correlation with human graders. This will have remarkable impacts on online education and will dramatically increase online student retention rates.

Any student with internet can access information and free courses (MOOCs) from universities around the world, but not all students can receive customised feedback due to the limit of manpower. Chatbots like Jill Watson allow the opportunity for students to have their work reviewed and all their questions answered at a minimal cost.

AI algorithms also have a significant role to play in the personalisation of education. Data analysis helps improves students’ results by assessing each student’s learning strengths and weaknesses and creating mass-customised programmes. Algorithms can analyse student data and create flexible programmes that adapt based on real-time feedback. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, all of this data could unlock up to $1.2 trillion in global economic value.

Beyond Automated Teaching


But technological automation alone won’t even begin to tackle the many issues in our global education system. Outdated curricula, standardised tests, and an emphasis on short-term knowledge, call for a transformation of how we teach. It’s not sufficient to automate the process. We must not only be innovative with our automation capabilities, but also with educational content, strategy and policies. And on the continent, there’s an even more pressing issue, the fact that many children don’t even have access or can’t afford quality teachers, school facilities and adequate learning materials in the first place. The lack of education is one of the most vital grand challenges that needs to be addressed in order to move Africa forward and to help realise the future of human potential.

To learn more about how disruptive and exponential technologies will transform your business, and revolutionise the education sector, book your tickets to the upcoming Singularity University South Africa Summit . SingularityU South Africa Summit in collaboration with Standard Bank, global partners Deloitte and strategic partners MTN and SAP, is produced by Mann Made Media and will take place on the 23-24 August 2017 at Kyalami Grand Prix and International Convention Centre.