Artificial intelligence is changing the world.
The world’s attention is now fixed on the unfolding impact of Generative AI tools on knowledge and creator economies. Schools, serving as the very epicenters of knowledge and creative work, may well be the first place the broader public sees tangible change take shape.
Leaders and visionaries the world over are actively advancing the applications of this rapidly developing technology. The pace of progress is measured in days and weeks, rather than months and years, and it’s only getting faster. The quickening of AI’s capabilities and applications mean that its potential impact, both good and bad, is growing rapidly.
Already, we can see around the corner that generative AI systems will have expansive implications for how schools function, teachers work, and how students develop personally and professionally for tomorrow’s world of work.
As is so often the case, our young people are leading the adoption and advancement of these new technologies. The term “digital native” already seems outdated as Gen Z and those that follow them will invariably be expert in these new technologies faster than many adults. Seeing youth as experts with real understanding and knowledge can open new and exciting use cases and applications for new technologies like generative AI.
Applying the power of AI to some of our greatest challenges in school and system design offers similarly incredible opportunities. It’s already helping teachers design courses and analyze data of student performance to engineer learning interventions and new lesson plans. But its potential to do more is clear. It could help us better know how the school day and all the learning experiences contained therein should look given the rapid evolution of the global economy. It could aid states and districts in developing new career pathways and structures for lifelong learning that keeps people connected to gainful employment across decades.
There is a sense, among many, that these technologies are pushing toward new horizons and opening us to futures both new and powerful. That group includes those pushing the leading edge forward, like Sal Kahn, CEO and Founder of Khan Academy.
“We’re at the cusp of using AI for probably the biggest positive transformation that education has ever seen,” he said during a recent TED Talk. “And the way we’re going to do that is by giving every student on the planet an artificially intelligent but amazing personal tutor. And we’re going to give every teacher on the planet an amazing, artificially intelligent teaching assistant.”
That would be a seachange in education if only because such personal learning and teaching supports are now profoundly expensive. To address pandemic learning loss, the federal government spent some $190 billion itself, with many state and local jurisdictions adding to that total. But, if we see the future as the Sal Kahns of the world do, massive funding infusions may not be necessary to provide customized and personalized learning experiences for every learner. Intelligent agents can already play the role of tutor and are likely to be more and more effective as the technology advances.
This ambitious and optimistic perspective, Khan says, must be balanced by an all out effort to thwart the negative, even dangerous possibilities with advanced AI, saying that all must “fight like hell for the positive use cases.”
Fears more broadly about AI include everything from potential job loss to losing control over lethal military capabilities. The national concern has grown to the point that OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman was recently called to testify before the U.S. Congress and meet with lawmakers about the technology’s rapid growth. Altman himself urged the creation of new legal frameworks to keep pace with the new technology.
Worry about AI’s deleterious effects on education specifically are also spreading. New York City Public Schools effectively banned the use of the most popular forms of the technology, ChatGPT, out of fears of student cheating. New York isn’t alone. Many K-12 school systems and institutions of higher learning are taking a defensive posture.
Experts in the field say the strategy of banning or blocking the technology could have unintended consequences of its own. The vast majority of successful companies and organizations will be using AI in their work, and seeking applicants that know how to leverage its power to increase productivity. Banning AI in schools could therefore reinforce digital inequities, the digital divide, and ultimately opportunity gaps.
“Many school systems decided to ban it,” Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi recently told CNN. “In New York City where the public school system has banned it, private schools are teaching AI prompt engineering. We have to find a middle ground to safely include it in how and what we teach.”
That call to a rational middle ground is both reasonable and appropriate given the awesome potential that generative machine learning offers educators, leaders and students. We should not only think about how technology can assist teachers and learners in improving what they’re doing now, but what it means for ensuring that new ways of teaching and learning flourish alongside the applications of AI.
“Technology offers the prospect of universal access to increase fundamentally new ways of teaching,” said Graduate School of Education Dean Daniel Schwartz at a recent AI and education conference.
Indeed, teachers are already early adopters of the technology. Some 30 percent of teachers are now using AI to develop lesson plans, according to Hadi Partovi, Code.org. Pandora’s box appears to be open, but that doesn’t mean we lack agency and capacity to shape the effects of that fact. And it doesn’t mean that we’re headed to a future where AI replaces professional human educators. In fact, it could well mean that highly trained and capable teachers are even more important facilitators of learning in an AI-enabled academic environment. But we need to act now.
Teachers need professional development specifically on AI and its productive applications. Teachers will need “pedagogical content knowledge specific to AI,” Daniela Ganelin, a Stanford researcher and doctoral student, told Education Week. They’ll need to understand the technology to fully grasp its potential and applications in the classroom.
With appropriate development and support, routine and time-intensive tasks in the classroom can be outsourced to intelligent agents and human teachers can focus on the deeply relational work of higher-level instruction, as UK Education Secretary Gillian Keegan recently noted. Formative assessment, an essential evidence-based tool in every effective educator’s toolbox, can be made even more real-time with responsive instruction plans and learning sequences adapting instantly to the specific state of a student’s learning journey.
Students too will need to learn and understand the technology. With the assistance of capable and knowledgeable educators, they will likely leverage these tools in ways that we cannot even imagine at present. With the right scaffolding around them as young learners with powerful technology, they can thrive alongside and amidst the rise of intelligent machines. And critically, we will need to provide that opportunity to all learners–failure to do so will only entrench inequities and widen gaps in novel ways.
Our northstar must always be the democratization of learning opportunities as we bring the fruits of technological innovation to our classrooms and well beyond them. There will be challenges, to be sure, but the power of human ingenuity to mitigate those challenges is just as real and equally powerful.
In this new era of learning—and make no mistake about it, that is exactly what we are entering—we will, however, need an approach to the deployment of AI in education that is centered on real human flourishing.
Doing so will not only strengthen student learning, but ensure that future generations thrive in ever more human and humane ways. That’s the kind of tomorrow in which all of our children and our planet can thrive.
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