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A.I. in Learning environments

Do well-designed learning 
environments need a teacher?

Speculating about alternative futures is integrally part of the design practice. There is even a field, speculative design, in which raising questions and provoking debate about possible scenarios is the challenge sought. Here, it is reading Goodyear and Dimitriadis’ article (2013) that a sentence called my attention, inviting us to imagine a “design for learning that takes place in situations where there is no teacher”. I then wondered if new learning environments could be designed in such ways that teachers would be de-centred from them. We all have in mind classrooms where the teacher is at its centre, as uncontested source of knowledge. With the rise of new technologies, learning environments are evolving too. Learners are expected to be more engaged and to self-organise their learning with a low degree of guidance from their instructors.

For that, planning is needed and designers are key actors in the process. The role of the instructional designer, “the architect of learning environments” as put in Seel et al. words (2017), might shape the where and how learning takes place. Teachers and designers could cooperate in achieving effective learning by negotiating their roles. A teacher/student-centred learning continuum could be discussed, where the presence of a designer would rather benefit a learner driven experience. Other possibilities are to instil design principles in teachers’ practice (Goodyear, 2015). As we already see in Higher Education, students are expected to be more independent and it seems fair to say that online courses that are well-designed require less of a teacher’s time.

There are some examples, however, where letting the designer entering the arena of learning may move the teacher at its periphery. If we look at language learning applications such as Super Chinese, AI technology is used to personalise the students’ progression in an interactive way. Teachers are side service providers that can be contacted by the users. Most would decide not to as their needs would already be covered by the application. To obtain this, a team of designers, teachers and developers must have collaborated to conceive the gamification of the learning experience and increase its desirability. The result is that users can be easily engaged with the content without any instructor requesting their attendance. Given that AI learns from our mistakes as learners and adapts the content accordingly, teachers are only really needed in the design phase. Once the application is implemented and used, they can be dismissed.

A hypothetical side note would be to consider that if students increasingly use AI chatbots such as ChatGPT to progress in their learning, it would be ironic to see that in some digital learning environments neither teachers nor students are active anymore and that only the medium that holds their relation lasts. This is clearly speculative, only to highlight the piece of technology used to mediate the interaction. Such medium can be a platform, whether an application or a website, designed by UX/UI designers and software engineers. In some scenarios, the platform could run by itself, removing the teachers from using it at its other end. In some other cases it would come to support their work, improving it greatly by systematising their practice. This distinction should be taken into account when envisioning new learning environments.

Ten years later, who would have thought that the “One Man, One Computer, 10 Million Students” project of Sal Khan in the 2010s would spread that quickly worldwide? The pandemic clearly reinforced an already emerging idea that one teacher’s well-recorded lesson could cover the learning of millions of students. Again, what designers and teachers can learn from these changes definitely lies in the medium. If the frame holding a learning environment is well-conceived and can reproduce the learning experience in systematic ways, no matter the user’s context, then it sustains itself and is replicable. Such well-designed environment needs to be feasible technology-wise aside from being visually pleasing and clear, functional, engaging as well as effective in what it aims to achieve.

The intentions that constitute the creation of a learning environment are ultimately to decide the need for a teacher’s presence or not. At the end, we surely know that if such intentions are to remove the teacher or to reduce their activity, a strong emphasis on design will be needed to balance such loss. Clear instructions would need to be visualised, recorded videos, podcasts or interactive exercises would need to be used, in short, any material that would clearly enhance the medium as teaching tool. This means that the question raised in the title should be formulated otherwise. Do learning environments conceived without a teacher need to be well-designed? The answer is uncontestably yes.

Publié: 19 mars 2023

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