The Prevalence of Algortihms in Education
There’s an old rhetorical question that asks, “If you could keep only the alphabet or numbers, which would you choose and why?”
The answer is numbers, of course, because in addition to describing quantities, numbers can do double duty as language. In fact, numbers have already become the language of education, in the form of algorithms.
Long thought by many high school students to be a suspicious word, algorithms are a simple term for the steps taken in solving a problem. Those steps are critical, because not only do they provide a solution, but they also do it in the simplest and most economical way possible. Multi-step problems become easier to solve.
Algorithms are the efficiency experts in getting things done, especially when it comes to computers, and education relies on efficient systems.
Algorithms schools already use
If a process in a school can be automated, it can be solved with an algorithm. The district’s transportation department uses algorithms to plot bus routes and travel times. Likewise, a school cafeteria can use multi-step formulas to align food prep and cooking times so that every component of the meal is ready at the same time.
There are plenty of other uses for machine intelligence, some positive and some highly questionable:
· Prescriptive learning – Migrant students who miss part of the school year due to the family’s need to travel to work benefit from prescriptive learning. So does the learner who needs a quick refresher or just wants to repeat a lesson. Individualized and differentiated instruction gives all students what they need to become successful learners. Algorithms make it possible to scaffold support, assess learning, and speed up or slow down the curriculum.
· Risk identification – Police departments have been using predictive algorithms to determine the relationship between potential suspects, gang members, social media posts, and the likelihood a person would commit a crime. Schools have adapted the algorithmic formula to identify potential dropouts. While we want to keep our students in school, there’s a real risk of profiling through systemic bias.
· Unified enrollment – What if a computer decided where your children went to school or which teacher they will have? Unified enrollment (UE) is already happening in cities around the country. Complex algorithms recommend the best matches between students and the schools on their “preferred” lists. The algorithmic initiative is meant to remove bias and subjectivity from the enrollment process. It’s also supposed to prevent any opportunity to game the admissions process.
Algorithms aren’t without challenges. They are not always accurate, and they aren’t without bias. The best of intentions can go awry if without a system of checks and balances. Even the AI algorithms used in fact-checking aren’t as accurate as human intelligence in evaluating the authenticity of content.
Schools everywhere run on algorithms. Technology has so permeated education that many complex tasks have been delegated to machine intelligence.
Artificial intelligence, however, will not replace the heart of any school – its faculty. Teachers and school leaders always must put people above algorithms. After all, algorithms are man-made strategies for solving problems.