Promoting more equitable learning with AI, but at what cost? 

By Jaz Low

AI has the potential to deliver more equitable learning, but human rights advocates warn that mass surveillance is a violation of privacy. 

“Equity can never become a reality in education if it is viewed as charity instead of professional obligation,” said Dr Anthony Muhammad, an educational speaker and consultant in America. His words have sown the seeds for India’s equitable approach to education, which mandates that teachers submit regular reports on student performance in a bid to level the playing field for learning.

The state of Telangana is using AI-based cameras to make this vision a reality. AI can identify students who require extra help and predict the topics they might be weak in by analysing past performance. It can also help teachers deliver lessons and perform administrative tasks. But some caution that without legal safeguards, authorities could potentially misuse this data.

Ramesh Loganathan, Co-Innovation Professor at IIIT-Hyderabad University shares how AI helps students to learn better and complements the work of teachers. Anushka Jain, Associate Counsel of Surveillance and Transparency at India’s Internet Freedom Foundation highlights the dangers of mass surveillance.

Assessing understanding

Select public schools in Telangana will be able to assess students’ understanding in class with the help of AI. There are plans to install cameras in classrooms to measure attentiveness. It will capture data such as students’ facial expressions, body language, and where they are looking.

After analysing this information, AI-enabled tools will generate a report to inform teachers of whether students have grasped the lesson. Teachers can then approach students who appeared confused, distracted, or had low levels of interest, Ramesh says.

Teachers can refer to this data to plan for special interventions and reinforce learning. “They can organise additional classes, assign more readings, or communicate with the child to take greater charge of their learning,” he suggests.

This initiative is in line with India’s new Education Policy, which states that schools have to conduct more rigorous assessments of students’ learning. The government has shared that “it is the responsibility of schools to ensure that every child is on the same page in terms of learning,” Ramesh comments.

As teachers have to submit performance reports on a regular basis, AI helps to automate this process by making observations and helping educators to judge student understanding.

IIIT-Hyderabad is a university in Telangana that is working with the government to execute this AI project. So far, it has trialled this model in 16 public schools in the state of Telangana and hopes to onboard more institutions after the first pilot. The goal is to implement this tool in other regions eventually, Ramesh notes.

Privacy concerns

But while AI-enabled cameras may offer many benefits, one cannot help but worry about privacy.
“Currently, India doesn't have a data privacy law so the question of where all this personal data…will go and what will become of it remains unanswered,” Anushka says.

She also warns that constant surveillance may have a negative effect on a child’s well-being and social skills. They might be scared to express their emotions in a healthy manner, or fear doing anything that might be misconstrued as mischief or inattentiveness, Anushka explains.

“We have certain fundamental rights and privacy is one of them. So any state that is conducting mass surveillance is violating these liberties,” she emphasises.

In response to these growing concerns, Ramesh says that his team will only collect footage after schools, parents, and students have given their explicit consent. “We are also very careful in making sure that the video recordings are not saved. We will only retain the information pertaining to a child’s attentiveness,” he adds.

Teaching spoken language and tracking attendance

Apart from helping students to learn better and keep pace with their peers, AI will be used to complement teaching.

Teachers can use AI to help students practice speaking fluent English. During a lesson, the system will verbalise a few sentences for students to repeat. The AI will then grade how well the class has managed to replicate these sentences and correct any mistakes.

This initiative is helpful because “while there may be good teachers in Telangana, they may not be used to speaking in English,” Ramesh says. English is the 44th most spoken first language in India, Mint wrote. This means that it is not very common for people to have native proficiency in the language.

AI can also increase the work efficiency of teachers. The cameras help teachers to track attendance, and can automatically tell who is present or absent in class.

It can also give more detailed insights into a student's attendance throughout the day. “For example, the AI will be able to tell if a child was missing for 20 minutes during his morning lesson or late for his evening lessons,” Ramesh shares.

“The current problem is that teachers spend a lot of time producing reports on something as simple as attendance,” he elaborates.

AI frees up time for them to perform other tasks, such as preparing additional worksheets or talking to at-risk students. This means they no longer have to sweat the small stuff like completing administrative work.

Log mid-day meals

AI can be used to log midday meals as well. The cafeteria will accommodate AI-enabled cameras to identify students who did not eat or did not finish their meals.

This information is important because “providing every child with food constitutes a major expense for the government,” Ramesh says. The government needs confirmation that they are pumping money into the right places and that children are benefitting from this social initiative.

“The midday meals are also about making sure that every child has access to nutritious food,” he adds. Schools can make use of this data and approach students who have been skipping their meals or eating too little.

AI has the power to even the odds in learning, ensuring that no one falls too far behind. But extensive surveillance can also put human rights at risk. These growing concerns cannot be ignored, and the Telangana government will need to tread the fine line between privacy and personalised education.