Upgrading the Smart Classroom with Digital Assistants

WITH TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENT AND RECENT CHANGES IN PEDAGOGY, THE MODERN CLASSROOM IS EQUIPPED TO MEET ALL THE NEEDS OF THE PRESENT-DAY EDUCATION SECTOR

They can be used to set reminders for homework or assignments and conduct games such as quizzes, puzzles and math games.

Today’s classrooms no longer follow traditional methods of teaching. They prompt learners to be more engaged in the learning process by involving interactive resources of a wider variety such as audiovisual content and smart tools, apart from textbooks and blackboards. With technological advancement and recent changes in pedagogy, the modern classroom is equipped to meet all the needs of the present-day education sector. Yet, certain redundant activities still take up the teacher’s time, which can be devoted to the teaching-learning process. This is where artificial-intelligence-based assistive devices can be used to efficiently organise the teacher’s activities in order to make learning easier.

With artificial intelligence making inroads into every aspect of our lives—disembodied voices responding to our requests on ordering food, navigating us through unknown roads, answering our questions, giving us reminders for appointments and controlling household appliances automatically—it is not difficult to imagine AI-powered devices assisting teachers in classrooms as well. In addition to being sources of information through adaptive assessments and personalised learning paths, AI-based devices can be designed to save a teacher’s time by doing mundane jobs such as taking attendance, presenting study material on connected display screens as per the instructional schedule and helping teachers navigate through the displayed content with ease.

HOW DIGITAL ASSISTANTS WORK

Virtual assistants work on the theory of Natural Language Processing (NLP), which is concerned with the interaction between the computer and human languages by processing and analysing natural language inputs. It is built on the concepts of speech recognition, natural language understanding, and natural language generation, so as to facilitate a conversation. The earliest virtual assistants with speech recognition software were the automated attendant and the digital dictation software—the former allowing callers to be transferred to an extension without the operator’s help and the latter recording and editing the spoken word. Modern digital assistants include Siri and HomePod by Apple Inc., Cortana by Microsoft, Alexa by Amazon and Google Home, which are primarily available on smartphones, computers and various other devices such as automobiles and smart home appliances.

These voice-controlled smart speakers are already making their way into the domestic sphere and in some countries, in the education sector as well. While educators are questioning the need for voice-tracking and third-party surveillance in K–12 education, teachers who are using these devices have given positive reviews about their abilities. Even though the skills of these devices are quite rudimentary, they are nonetheless helpful. They can be used to set reminders for homework or assignments and conduct games such as quizzes, puzzles, and math games. Occasionally, they could help with activities such as spelling practice and tests. During lectures, teachers can use it as an instant search engine by asking for information. However, the devices are still not equipped to understand the accents of non-native speakers of English, which causes disruption in classroom activities to an extent.

USING AI ASSISTANTS IN CLASSROOMS

The potential for the adoption of digital assistants in classrooms is increasing with the advancement of their features, such as subject review questions, timers for examinations, social-emotional support, creation of presentation according to the needs of teachers, taking attendance with the help of facial recognition software (by syncing it with a camera) and so forth. Language acquisition is also getting easier since the assistants can speak in various languages other than English. As artificial intelligence has been used to adapt to an individual learner’s needs, perhaps the smart assistant can also be adapted to an individual teacher’s requirements.

Digital assistants cannot replace teachers in classrooms, but there are several benefits of using these devices for education:

The most important benefit of using smart assistants is the easy availability of information in the classroom. Certain concepts can easily be taught with the help of images or videos, which can be provided by the assistant instantaneously.

The assistant can be set up in libraries, where it can help students search for book titles, authors and other resources such as online journals and news articles. These will aid students in projects and assessments.

Virtual assistants can help with translation and improve vocabulary skills in the target language. They can also improve listening and speaking skills of students with the help of a conversation. Students learn to ask better questions and improve their pronunciation skills with the help of these devices.

Digital assistants can also be used for miscellaneous classroom activities to make learning interesting. For example, it can be used to narrate relevant stories or play music or poetry clips for a comprehensive understanding of language and literature. In science and geography classes, natural phenomena can be explained by videos and news feed if the assistant is connected to a display screen.

The assistants can make learning entertaining, especially for elementary learners, via various games such as CK-12 EDU Trivia, Space Trivia, Math Showdown, Animal Trivia, National Geographic Bee, Twenty Questions to identify characters, animals, etc. Skills can be incorporated in such activities according to the teacher’s discretion, such as mental maths games and spelling tests.

The assistant can be used to schedule examinations and programmed to give reminders for homework assignments. It can also act as a timer during examinations or any other activity so that all activities are done as per schedule. Reminder alerts for miscellaneous school activities can also be given by the assistant.

The assistant can be used to analyse the user’s voice in order to gauge his or her mood or emotional state. This may help in emotional interactions with the assistant, especially in cases where students do not want to open up to elders or go for psychiatric help to deal with their troubles. The assistant can, therefore, aid the teacher in understanding the emotional states of the pupils. Children who are naturally shy and have trouble interacting with people can also talk with the assistant and gradually overcome their inhibitions.

Digital assistants have met with a lot of resistance due to issues related to efficiency and security, but with gradual updation, such assistive technology has the potential to impact the learning community by saving time and effort, and is, therefore, the first step towards a truly smart classroom. Extensive work is being done to enable meaningful interactions with the devices by improving voice receptivity and further work needs to be done on institution infrastructure to support these devices on a large scale. The assistant may be programmed to create presentations for future classrooms as per the instructor’s requirements. The K–12 learning community is cautiously optimistic about the benefits of voice assistants as they are being increasingly used in the classroom and home learning in innovative ways. With the rapid development of assistive technology in the education sector, smart assistants have been hailed as the best learning aid for the youth of tomorrow.

Sai Charan Thirandas

Sai Charan Thirandas completed his Bachelors in Electronics & Communication Engineering from IIT Guwahati. He joined Next Education India Pvt Ltd. as an R & D Engineer. He is currently working on the AI-based EdTech products – Adaptive Tests and Pronunciation Tool.

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