The mission to fuse future tech with what works for us

At ISL, we pride ourselves on being progressive in both education and well-being, but there is a balance between embracing the new and respecting what already works well.That balance means we have to ensure we keep up with innovation, technology and an increasingly changing world, but retain our empathy and human communication. Because that’s the way education is going: taking on the new, while recognising thatsome things don’t necessarily need to change for the sake of it. Here, we take a look at some of the emerging innovations that are already making in-roads into our schools and those which are predicted to play a greater role in education in the future. And of course, we consider the role of the human teacher in the middle of it all.

Writers: Saskia Faulk & Chris Fidler

Rise of the robots− will artificial intelligence threaten the role of the teacher?

Fears of robots taking over from teachers might not be as irrational as you might first think.

After all, there are plenty of academics out there who champion the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in schools. Indeed, one of the UK’s most celebrated education theorists, Sir Anthony Seldon, has been an advocate of AI for many years and thinks it’s only a matter of time before education software will replace a sizeable chunk of a teacher’s workload.

The backbone of artificial intelligence is the algorithm – basically, a set of instructions which help a machine or programme to learn on its own.

While algorithms can be helpful, they aren’t suitable for all educational activities. In an ideal world, they should be used to support the creation of optimal learning environments. AI-based technology could be excellent tools for teaching rule-based subjects like mathematics and languages.

However, a teacher would still be needed to help explain whatever students don’t understand, like the nuances and exceptions to rules of languages, or how to apply mathematical formulas to solve problems. The teacher’s role would be to guide, support, and mentor students, helping them to understand what they’ve learned, why it’s important, and how it can be applied in the real world.

Many who are wary of Seldon’s vision agree the soft skills of a human teacher, and the teaching itself, can never be satisfactorily replicated or replaced.

Think back to your own school days and the chances are you will remember at least one teacher who was a mentor. They supported and inspired you, both inside and outside of the classroom. And better yet, they were most probably entertaining, too.

As Natasha Smerling noted in her article for Study International: “Can you imagine a robot teaching the oppression of women in our society today with such passion and motivation that it inspires a young woman to sign up for the next Women’s March? Not likely. The most powerful divide between living things and artificial intelligence is empathy.”

Nobody gets left behind−the promise of biometrics

While some feel teaching can never be adequately replaced by AI, technology has definite advantages when it comes to personalising learning for individual students. A potential challenge with teaching a classroom full of students is that each will learn at a different pace, some will be more receptive to learning than others, while others may have shorter attention spans or be reluctant to ask for help. Tech can help to mitigate this disparity, to try and ensure nobody gets left behind.

It might sound a bit Big Brother, but there’s plenty of evidence that scanning eye movement, for example, can tell us a great deal about a student’s concentration. Harness this technology, and teachers will be able to soon work out who might require additional help.

Biometric tracking is of particular interest to institutions committed to raising the achievements of students who are on the autistic spectrum. A research team from the University of Northampton, in the UK, has developed technology to help students with Asperger Syndrome improve their academic performance. Their software model can be used by teachers to keep tabs on students’ emotions, via the use of a simple webcam, alerting them to those who show signs of confusion, anxiety or uncertainly, via the teacher’s laptop.

University of Northampton’s postgraduate research student, Amina Dawood, said: “Teachers cannot monitor a whole room of students at the same time, so this model allows them to track and detect when individual students are anxious, bored, engaged, confident or uncertain. The teacher can then take steps to help those who might be struggling to understand what’s being taught.

“Similar models exist, but ours is the first to focus specifically on those with Asperger’s, who typically have differences in facial expressions and eye gaze compared to those without the syndrome.”

Remote control− the emergence of online delivery

Technological advances – including cheap and reliable broadband – have been perfect for institutions which favour distance learning over physical, face-to-face teaching. But, while some universities have embraced elements of online learning, it has, so far, had its limitations in schools. Our director, Frazer Cairns, does see the online delivery model as something which will help to open up educational opportunities for everybody around the globe.

He said: “Currently, high-quality education is the privilege of the few, rather than the many. There is a disparity between the education offered in a private school like ours and that offered in many national schools, and again between a national school in a country like Switzerland and that in Kenya or Tanzania. Technology has the potential to change this, although at the moment, this potential has yet to be realised.”

Frazer added: “Though the biggest provider of online services in the International Baccalaureate world, Pamoja, does maintain a presence in schools where running a course is unrealistic for whatever reason, they remain largely seen as providing support that is ‘better ‘ than nothing.

“There are, however, real developments where normal schooling is impossible: Sky School, a not-for-profit organisation on a mission to create the first global high school for refugees, is currently developing the first international high school curriculum for young people who are displaced.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown remote learning into the spotlight, as schools and universities have been forced to investigate online alternatives to face-to-face teaching.

One of our staff members, Spanish teacher Liam Printer, initially found remote teaching to have some challenges, particularly as it was thrust upon him and his colleagues overnight, by the pandemic. But he felt ISL adapted to the changes well, and was a step ahead of many other schools.

Liam was also pleased with ISL’s policy of ensuring whole classes could meet virtually, on regular occasions, which would help to alleviate any feelings of isolation and a lack of motivation.

He said: “Students enjoyed seeing the faces of their classmates and the teacher – it’s those connections and relationships that are so important in education – and it kept them on track. It also gave them a bit of accountability because you could see their faces and if they hadn’t done a piece of work, you could chat it through rather than just send an email from teacher to student.”

Liam added: “In terms of a blended learning model, long-term, where students are half at home and half in class, personally, I don’t think that is the way things will go in schools if there is an option not to have that.”

Gaming in the classroom? Seriously?

Serious games are becoming serious tools for the more forward-thinking higher and further education institutions, including universities and medical schools, but also major companies. And schools will undoubtedly be using more of them in the future.

If you’re not sure what a serious game is, you might be surprised to learn you possibly have your very own expert at home, holed up in their bedroom, playing one right now.

That’s right… Minecraft could be defined as a serious game.

Serious games are those designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment, for example, training. Think of flight and Formula One car simulators – they’re essentially games, used to train pilots and drivers, who can make mistakes without catastrophic consequences. Medical students ‘play’ them, when they carry out virtual operations on a computer screen.

While Minecraft was initially developed as entertainment, some schools are now embracing it as an engaging alternative to computer-aided design programmes, when teaching students the principles of architecture and design. By using a game they’re au fait with, students can focus on developing their ideas, rather than spending too much time trying to master how to use a new programme.

Professor Dominique Jaccard develops serious games at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland. The institution’s games are used in universities and companies teaching project management, programming, emergency-room triage, cardiac and oncology care, sustainable urban planning, and crime scene investigations.

Despite being so invested in serious games, Prof Jaccard cannot see a time where they take over from our teachers.

He said: “Serious games can’t replace the importance of the human factor in teaching, nor do they replace the need for real-world experience.

“Teachers’ interactions with students before, during, and after the serious game are pivotal to successful learning.

“However, I do see technology helping teachers to do their jobs more effectively. For example, in the case of serious games the data that is generated by students playing the games can yield fascinating insights into their decisionmaking processes and perceptions. This data can help teachers to understand what is effective in their delivery and what they could improve.”

Getting emotional about teaching

The overriding message seems to be that human interactions are what makes teachers so valuable, and it’s hard to see this changing, whatever advances technology brings.

Here at ISL, the well-being of our students is our highest priority, and as an international school, it needs to be. We are welcoming young people who have left their home country to live in Switzerland. For many, it can be a huge change in lifestyle and culture, and while some may treat it as an adventure from start, others take their time to get used to a completely new way of life.

Our High School Principal, Sarah Gifford, takes a particular interest in student well-being and developing leadership in young people.

“Schools are often thought of for the academic learning which takes place, but the foundation to this academic potential is a firm grounding in social-emotional learning. Well-being at ISL therefore is not just about providing a foundation to the scope of academic success, but also about equipping students with the tools to manage when unexpected challenges come their way.

“We do not question the idea that maths, English, geography, science, or any other subject requires students to learn and practice an articulated set of skills over time. At ISL, we think about social-emotional learning in the same way. Using the CASEL competency model, we use homeroom time and well-being lessons to teach a curriculum which includes social-awareness, relationships skills, responsible decision-making, self-management, and self-awareness. Explicitly teaching these skills, just as any other subject, helps students develop their social-emotional intelligence to not only function, but to excel in the school environment, as well as in the complex and dynamic world beyond ISL.

“If I needed to choose two of the most important characteristics for young people to succeed and to play an active role in our multi-cultural world, they would be resilience and empathy. Difficult to teach, these characteristics require regular skill-building and support in school, with students learning both the vocabulary and mind set, as well as being exposed to a variety of experiences in which they can practice them. A structured social-emotional learning curriculum which is researched based, such as the one we have developed at ISL, ensures that students do not develop these characteristics through accidental experiences, but that they learn and practise them with purpose and understanding.”

As you can see, well-being is something a robot might struggle to teach, and we won’t be rushing out to replace our human colleagues any time soon.

Gradient Issue #2: The magazine of the International School of Lausanne

In this edition, we explore how our community has coped during this special year to make the best of it. We also have a special section on multilingualism and how it can both benefit and challenge our students.