Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth

Start a transportation and logistics management degree at American Public University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

This is the second of two articles on the pedagogic effect of robots replacing online professors.

To determine when robots will arrive in the classroom, we teaching experts need to tackle the key issues that give credibility to professors with years of teaching experience. There is a need for academic conferences to address the realities of robot instructors.

Can AI Robots Share Personal Chats?

Students and their instructors chatting online increases student engagement. These conversations are kind-hearted, not mean-spirited. They could also be called sharing life lessons or life experiences.

Can a robot share life experiences or lessons as humans can? No.

In an online classroom, students are more likely to open up about their fears and ask questions. They feel more comfortable talking to a stranger than they would be talking to close friends, relatives or a favorite instructor.

Will students open up in the same way to a robot? Probably not.

All universities have academic advisors with program-specific expertise to offer assistance to struggling students. These academic advisors could be replaced by an AI robot.

But that type of help may be more like an automated customer service system with directional comments like “Push 1 for grade reviews” or “Push 2 for technology support.” Students could be turned off by a lot of push-a-number replies from a robotic academic advisor.

AI robots can direct students to resources to improve their writing. But would students appreciate these resources as much as those that come from online professors? Maybe.

Can AI Robots Exhibit Passion for Teaching Like Online Professors?

Education has changed a great deal over the years. But the impact of a passionate instructor on pupils has not. (Recall the passion with which Robin Williams motivated his students in “Dead Poets Society.”)

I asked a former faculty colleague to explain why she still teaches after 30 years and why she believes in the power of passionate teaching. She said she finds it rewarding when her students take time to thank her. Can an AI robot show passion? Not likely.

How to Build an AI Robotic Instructor for Online Courses

The first step in planning for a robot instructor is to examine the current structure of online courses to determine whether the current format needs to be modified. The format is key to student-instructor engagement. For the student, this format includes the asynchronous interaction of email, discussion forums, research papers, quizzes and tests.

For online professors, an AI replacement would need to respond to emails and edit, comment on and grade papers. In addition, AI instructors must also post weekly announcements, past work summaries and special events. These postings alert students to upcoming assignments and deadlines and offer words of encouragement.

Online professors usually do not handle grading quizzes. They are graded by computer software.

If a student challenges a grade, the instructor has to respond to the student with a judgment call. Is the answer close enough to be judged correct? An email response would be needed between instructor and student and a grade change might be in order.

But an AI instructor would find that grading papers is a complex task. The software would need to be able to grade each part of each paper, such as:

  • The title page
  • An abstract page
  • Content pages with headlined items such as major facts, possible solutions, choice and rationale, and implementation plan
  • An appendix with three to five questions that must be answered
  • References and citations in the correct citation format, such as APA

There are also grade reductions for poor grammar, spelling, sentence structure and formatting. The instructor is expected to say something about the quality of the work and critique the body of the paper. Can a robot or AI software do that?

Auto manufacturers and truck companies are trying to reduce the number of confusing devices and choices in vehicles, much as computer, iPhone and Microsoft software have reduced the number of choices needed to make a call, text a friend or look up a direction or recipe.

Can this approach be used to design the future of robot instructors? The answer is yes.

Professors and administrators might resist the change for a variety of valid reasons that need to be examined. The discussion in academia needs to start now before some company joins this pedagogic field and destroys the momentum toward robotic learning with shoddy products.

The Teaching Human and Machine Interface Approach

Robots as AI instructors are coming, just as robots are replacing warehouse and assembly line workers. But not all humans are being replaced; many are being trained in new skills to work with their robot partners.

There is a new partnership between the human instructor and the machine interface. It’s called a THMI approach.

In developing robotic instructors, academic researchers will need to learn to speak the customers’ language, which involves adult students 22 to 72 years old. We must design the new courses around what the students, our customers, expect today, not what they were told to expect decades ago.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.