Exploring AI in the classroom: Empower2Learn kicks off

Artificial intelligence and personalised learning in the classroom is a hot topic. London CLC’s Peter Lillington and Rowan Roberts introduce the issues as they embark on a European project to explore its complexities.


From robots replacing teachers to chatbots in the school office, artificial intelligence (AI) in education is a hot topic. It’s also a controversial topic, with both fears and hopes for this emerging technology at an equally high pitch. We’re looking to cut through some of the noise at both ends of the spectrum through a new Erasmus+ project, Empower2 Learn.

Empower2 Learn is considering the benefits of technology for personalising learning and will include machine learning and artificial intelligence alongside other digital tools. For example, through our involvement in the Rosendale Primary research school ReflectED project around metacognition we know that tools such as the Seesaw platform can have beneficial impacts in personalising learning.

We recently embarked on the first stage of the project and had meetings with our project partners from four other countries. They include two universities in Belgium and the Netherlands. We are also working with the Swedish municipal department of education in Norrköping, with whom we have links from our existing Erasmus project Co-think, which is entering its final phase, and Arnhem CLC from the Netherlands who visited us during the Bett show 2018.

Will robots replace teachers?

Early research suggests that although some teachers may fear that AI is a way to replace teachers in the classroom, this is unlikely to be the case. There is certainly evidence that

this technology can be good at some aspects of teaching or functions that support a teacher and with impacts beneficial to learners. 

Examples of such technology currently in use include Mindspark for maths learning and Whizz education in the UK and Kenya. AI and big data have also been used to evaluate the impact of CPD on school integration of technology, such as in the case of Profuturo in Brazil.

IBM’s WATSON AI has been used to support (older) students with queries not directly related to teaching and learning such as assignment due dates and timetabling of classes. In that case, queries that couldn’t be answered by the system’s data training on forum posts were passed on to a real teacher to answer. There are also systems available to grade essays through pattern matching around certain criteria – again, where there is any doubt, reference is made to a real marker.

Augmenting human teachers

However, what is becoming clear is that, despite the very big advances of the last ten years, artificial intelligence cannot currently and perhaps may never fully be able to replace the more multifaceted intelligence and skill set of a teacher. 

As Neil Selwyn points out in his interesting book Should Robots Replace Teachers, what needs to be considered carefully is that the systems are only as good as the data that they analyse. They are not so capable of weighing up factors dependent upon context, whether social or otherwise (eg has a child had enough to eat, are they sleepy or upset because of a family event).

He identifies five ways that a human teacher can support learning that cannot be fully replicated through technology:

  • Human teachers have learnt what they know so can empathise with learners (who benefit from the teacher’s memory of learning)
  • Human teachers can make cognitive connections by putting themselves in a learner’s shoes
  • Human teachers can make social connections- there is a mutual obligation between teachers and learners; teachers use interpersonal skillsHuman teachers can think out loud, adjusting to audience reaction
  • Human teachers perform with their whole bodies, including moving around a room 

Starting points

Within Empower2Learn London CLC is responsible for coordinating an initial literature review with the aim of saving educators’ time and providing some pointers for those who would like to learn a little more about the potential of this area. There will also be a CPD element further down the line and a toolkit for teachers and educators.

From our very early look at some recent papers and updates in this area we are keen to highlight resources recently published by the Educate team at UCL, which come in a graphic form as well as a report for those who have time to read it. There are three posters:

Is Artificial Intelligence intelligent?

Can machines learn?

What is the future of AI in education?

We plan to introduce some of you to these helpful AI and machine learning posters at our Computing Conference next week (there is still a chance to book – email [email protected]). We’ll be talking through them and finding out what you think.

Digital competencies

While at our start-up meeting in Norrköping we were able to hear from Linda Mannila, a Finnish academic who now works in Sweden and is one of our project partners. She gave an interesting introduction to significant changes in the Swedish and Finnish education systems, with a particular focus on digital competencies for pupils and staff. 

We and our European Partners value the 2017 DigiCompEdu (European Framework for the Digital Competence of Educators) and it is one of the more recent frameworks for digital competencies that have appeared across the world – we’ll particularly be focusing on Area 5: Empowering learners using digital technologies to enhance inclusion, personalisation and learners’ active engagement. 

This is broken down into:

5.1 Accessibility and Inclusion; 

5.2 Differentiation and personalisation

5.3 Actively engaging learners

Swedish primary school Oxel Bergsskolen

We also had a visit to local primary school Oxel Bergsskolan and heard of some of their challenges but also successes in how they have supported staff in adopting G Suite. They had two interested and knowledgeable staff acting as champions, to show examples and support in various ways and making use of an impressive range of other digital platforms and tools. In a lesson we observed pupils in small groups sound recording strategies for calculation to demonstrate thinking to their teacher. We were also given a demonstration of the platform www.studi.se which has the ability to translate on the fly and has given some Arabic-speaking pupils more direct access to the Swedish curriculum (it can translate a variety of languages).

After an inspiring week we are now turning our attention to the first intellectual output of this project, which is a review of current research and practice in this area. So far this has been a great opportunity for members of the London CLC team to learn and think deeply about an aspect of technology that promises to play a major part in the learning experiences of the pupils of the present and the future.

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Upcoming CPD

Summer primary school computing conference
Summer primary school computing conference

This event will build upon the Autumn computing conference by inviting subject leaders to reflect on their year in the role, sharing their successes and challenges. It will also introduce new ideas, tools and approaches through talks and practical activities led by members of the CLC team, with opportunities for attendees to share their own expertise and experience. Over the course of the conference activities will touch on the three main areas of the computing curriculum: computer science, digital literacy and information technology. We will also feature advice and examples illustrating the use of technology to support blended learning.

- 15:30
Computing subject leaders, Teachers...
Creative Arts, Digital and children – CLC meets More Than Robots online
Creative Arts, Digital and children - CLC meets More Than Robots online

Combining forces for the first time, the Connected Learning Centre and More Than Robots have created a session for teachers, youth organisations, researchers and policymakers interested in the digital provision of creative arts for primary aged pupils.


The Play Observatory - Prof. John Potter

“In their own words”: Westminster Abbey & CLC digital projects - Sian Shaw

Building (and maintaining) a city-wide primary arts curriculum to raise attainment - Kate Fellows

More to be added soon

This interactive and inclusive meet up will include inspiring examples of how technology can be used to support learning in music, visual art and drama in person and online at home drawing on our experiences as Tate Exchange associates and our partnership work with a range of cultural institutions.

This informal event is an opportunity to discuss real examples of what does/doesn’t work, meet colleagues from other sectors working on similar challenges and share useful research, news or updates

The morning will include case study presentations (details below) followed by a Q&A. There will also be an opportunity for a rapid sharing round for launches, project updates or requests for help and a short break to avoid zoom brain drain.

- 11:30
KS1, KS2
Subject leaders, Teachers...

Upcoming Special projects

The News Project
- 14:25

Special project in collaboration with First News Education

For a third year, building on two successful previous projects, we are once again partnering with the children’s newspaper First News, fellow member of the national Making Sense of Media and News Literacy networks. This special project with a literacy, PSHE and citizenship, as well as computing focus, highlights our specialist interest in this important aspect of digital and critical literacy.

The News Project will enable participating classes from year 5 to immerse themselves in news and current affairs using First News and the Bett award-winning First News iHUB, which will be provided free of charge during the school-based part of the project over a six week period. Under the guidance of their teacher, pupils will be supported in their development as a community of fully informed news readers. Classes will test their new critical skills and knowledge in the culminating virtual celebration event which will include a news competition and team-based critical literacy and editorial activities. After the event, schools will be able to use the resources from the day in their school.

The project will launch with an introductory CPD session for teachers to set the context, demonstrate resources and to plan for the school-based activities. 

Initial CPD session - Thursday 21st October 4pm-5.00pm. 

Project work undertaken in school - October and November.

Special event - Thursday 25th November 9.30am-2.45pm.

The Garden Museum

The CLC is once again partnering with the Garden Museum to offer a partnership project for KS1 pupils (primarily suited to Yr2). Located next to Lambeth Palace on the bank of the Thames, the museum has an inspiring collection that provides the ideal stimulus for young learners to explore the world around them.

Pupils will use technology alongside the museum’s collection to explore the wonderful world of seeds.

  • How are they planted?
  • How do they spread?
  • What is inside them?

 The Garden Museum has a large collection of seeds and tools that pupils will engage with.

These half-day sessions will take place at the Garden Museum.

There is a limited number of dates available, so please book early to avoid disappointment.

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