Aristotle – the (postulated) automatic teaching system

John Battelle draws my attention to W. Daniel Hillis’ 2000 essay “Aristotle”. In it, he postulates an automated online tutoring system (“Aristotle”) that would find available resources and, on the fly, construct a completely individualised course for the student on the topic they wished to learn.

It’s an extraordinarily bold vision; one that contains enough challenges that no teacher need start worrying about job security just yet.

Arostotle’s constructors would face two challenges; course design and student assessment.

Course design

Here’s how Hillis envisions it.

Aristotle plans its lessons by finding chains of explanations that connect the concepts you need to learn to what you already know. It chooses the explanatory paths that match your favorite style of learning, including enough side paths, interesting examples, and related curiosities to match your level of interest.

Aristotle must know what explanatory material is out there. An experienced Googler would find this quite plausible; so far so good. Next, it must be able to rank this material for its appropriateness to the particular student. That’s harder, but again the most advanced search engines, such as Amazon’s A9, are making serous attempts to personalise the search process to this degree.

Finally, it must present these resources in a logical chain. Hollis’ idea for this

Whenever possible, Aristotle follows the paths laid down by great teachers in the knowledge web.

doesn’t work in my opinion. I think it takes us right back to where we are now; precreated courses such as Chalkface’s own online GCSEs. One might get around this, though, by asking the student to sequence a list of summaries by hand. Ultimately, the course design stage is do-able, perhaps not yet, but in a few years’ time.

Student assessment

Aristotle will not only explain things to you but will also ask you questions—both to make you think and to verify for itself that concepts are being learned successfully. When an explanation doesn’t work, Aristotle tries another approach, and of course you can always ask questions, request examples, and give Aristotle explicit feedback on how it’s doing. Aristotle then uses all these forms of feedback to adjust the lesson, and in the process it learns more about you.

Here’s where the hard work really needs to be done. Think back to your Bloom’s Taxonomy basics. In assessing a student, you are looking for three things

  • Knowledge
  • Understanding
  • Evaluation

Simple questions will only test knowledge. To go further we need a deeper process. Our own work here at Chalkface on essay marking has shown that understanding and evaluation can also be tested for, using applied psycholinguistics, but only under closely controlled conditions.

I predict that this is the factor which will limit Aristotle’s development. A sufficiently general assessment engine is at least 10 years away; probably more.

Hollis’ own inspiration comes from Neil Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age. Stephenson’s automated teacher

becomes a friend and playmate to the heroine of the novel, and guides not only her intellectual but also her emotional development.

To achieve this, we’ll need machines that are in every way as intelligent as humans. I don’t care to predict when that will be, but for an exploration of how it might come to be, I refer you to William Gibson’s classic The Idoru, which I’ve just finished rereading for the nth time.


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