Reporting Robots

By Britten Follett – Senior Vice President of Marketing and Classroom Initiatives, Follett School Solutions

Britten-Follett-Journalist-artificial-intelligenceFive years into my career as a television journalist, I was on live television and suffered every reporter’s biggest fear: I completely forgot my next line. With no prompter or script nearby, I paused and repeated my last line, hoping it would prompt my normally “elephant”-like memory to spit out the next line, that would prompt the director back at the station to roll my story. Didn’t happen. I remember wanting to disappear, walk out of frame, and possibly start sobbing. Instead, I looked down at the ground, shook my head, and said “Oh goodness.”

After the “Oh goodness!” moment, I remember wondering how long it would take before my job as a reporter and eventually anchor would be replaced by an avatar that would never forget its next line and could read a script flawlessly. The artificially intelligent news anchor would not stumble over complicated city names and would eventually learn that Cairo, Illinois is actually pronounced Kay-Row.  Eight years after my last live newscast, there may be bots translating news releases into web stories and basic television scripts, but we still have humans delivering the news. And that’s because delivering the news often requires on-the-spot decision making with changing dynamics and information. Very much like teaching in front of a live classroom.

There’s much debate in the education industry about the role artificial intelligence will play in education.  When will a computer replace a teacher?  Would that lead to the end of public education?  How do parents protect their students’ data in a world of personalized learning driven by technology?  What impact would that digital footprint have on a student’s future?  When will a technology program guide a student through a learning journey? At Follett, we believe artificial intelligence will NOT replace the role a human plays in guiding a smaller human through the education process. However, it will complement the teaching process. And it will save teachers time.

This is why Follett recently acquired an adaptive learning platform called Fishtree, which uses artificial intelligence to help teachers personalize instruction. Fishtree’s AI engine allows teachers to attend to the needs of every student, instantly discovering and aligning resources to standards, auto-building assessments from content, and offering personalized learning experiences for every student. What is Follett doing with that technology?

Imagine a world where the engine knows a students’ interests, proficiencies, and deficiencies and recommends content in which a district has already acquired—print and digital content in the students’ library or classroom, which could be supplemented by OERs. We plan to build this platform as an extension of our market-leading Destiny technology.

A student will log into MyDestiny, and based on what we know about their reading level and assessments, what we know they checked out from the library, and what their teacher wants them to be focused on, the platform will deliver highly specialized content and continue to adapt as they progress through their learning journey.

But just as every story you see on the news could take a slightly different direction depending on who the reporter interviews for the piece, each teacher using the product we’re building can use the adaptive technology to take two students with similar interests down different learning paths, depending on their reading levels, without having to spend time finding resources to differentiate instruction.

It is the teacher who truly knows the many factors that influence a student’s performance. The computer won’t know that a particular student is having problems at home or is being bullied. The computer won’t recognize when the student is feeling under the weather or is anxious about an upcoming basketball game. The teacher can adapt based on life’s inevitable circumstances.

Would an avatar have avoided the “Oh Goodness!” moment I shared earlier? Sure. But the avatar would likely have struggled with the empathy needed to report live outside a soldier’s funeral, or with the dynamics of election night coverage. I believe in my lifetime, the news and education will be delivered in many new formats, channels, and voices… some perfectly automated… and some with perfectly human mistakes.


Britten FollettBritten is a journalist. A marketer. A storyteller. A board member. A philanthropist. An advocate for libraries and education. Britten spent 10 years as an Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning television journalist. In 2010, she made a tough decision to give up a career she loved and embark on a new career as a 5th generation family member working for Follett Corporation. At Follett, she started as the marketing manager for the International team and has held various roles in marketing and communications throughout the organization. Today she is the senior vice president of marketing and classroom initiatives for Follett’s K12 education business.

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