Worlds of Education

Empowering Educators in the Age of AI: What Now?

Part 2 of 3

published 8 January 2024 updated 13 May 2024
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My curiosity got the best of me and I registered for ChatGPT. I was quickly amazed by the efficiency and timesaving it presented me. This prompted my dive into a rabbit hole of learning – engaging in a variety of reading and conversations in education and other sectors, as well as trying different aspects of AI in education within my own context. The path has been complex, filled with challenges, wonders, and more possibilities.

After several months, I find myself grappling with more questions than answers. The intricate landscape of AI in education presents a myriad of possibilities for implementation in my classroom and in our schools —tools like Diffit, Gradescope, Babbel, Duolingo, Powerschool, Brightbytes, Photomath, Grammarly, and more. The sheer breadth of choices can be overwhelming, often leaving me with the sensation of not making significant progress for extended periods of time.

Consequently, I've chosen to center my exploration around a pivotal concept: how can AI enhance and augment my current teaching reality and foster an inclusive and equitable practice in public education?

From what I have observed, read, and experienced, reaction to change in education varies greatly worldwide - some have struggled, while others have thrived. What works seamlessly for one teacher may cause chaos for another. Numerous factors come into play, determining whether an innovation succeeds or fails with first and foremost the fact that this is a human endeavor with all its complexities. Yet, when faced with challenges, when the status quo shifts in our classrooms and schools, the typical response tends to be the outright rejection or banning of whatever innovation is at hand which stops possible positive changes immediately.

Navigating the era of AI, the debate on whether to ban or permit cell phones reflects past discussions on inevitable technological advancements. In staff discussions, the disruptive impact of cell phones is palpable, posing challenges related to mental health, disengagement, and cyberbullying. The question arises: is the issue the cell phone itself or the embedded algorithms in games and social media as well as constant notifications? No doubt the cell phone can help to enhance the learning and teaching experience in many ways. Despite some schools banning cell phones in the face of these challenges, a nuanced approach is crucial, recognizing the complexity of education, age appropriate with scaffolding, and contextual. Addressing this requires a proactive share strategy across all grade levels, emphasizing comprehensive digital literacy aligned with frameworks like ISTE and Edutopia, supported by experts like Dr. Michael Rich for teaching executive functioning skills, digital citizenship, and preemptive digital wellness initiatives. A forward-looking approach involves instilling responsible technology use throughout a student's academic journey to navigate the digital landscape and mitigate addiction risks.

With AI infiltrating our classrooms, we have a different beast to grapple with that is rapidly evolving, which prompts an initial instinct to reject it. Many have outright banned the use of AI in their districts, schools, classrooms, citing valid concerns such as the vital necessity to safeguard our students’ privacy and digital footprint or the exponential rise of plagiarism in our high schools and universities.

But this is not going away, it would be better to engage, look for ways forward, and educate on responsible use of AI in our classrooms and schools.

A multifaceted revolution in students’ learning journey

AI in our classrooms extends far beyond ChatGPT; it is just one element in the education revolution. For students, ChatGPT represents merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to writing assistance. Sudowrite, Caktus AI, Hemingway Editor, and GrammarlyGo are equally adept at supporting and aiding students in their assignments. The prevalent fear is that these tools facilitate plagiarism among students, and unfortunately, this concern is not unfounded—it is a reality—which is more pronounced in secondary and tertiary settings.

But, we are not merely witnessing the impact of AI confined to writing assignments. Students are now employing AI tools like Photo Math as personalized math tutors, scanning equations, and receiving step-by-step solutions in seconds. Language learning takes on various forms, whether through the more traditional approach of Babbel or the gamified experience of Duolingo. They use Otter A.I. for note-taking assistance and meeting minutes, leverage Readwise for document summarization and highlighting key points, seek feedback on their work through Gradescope, or create mind maps of their learning with tools like Coggle and Mural AI. These examples illustrate the diverse ways in which students are integrating AI into their learning processes.

Highlighting the imperative for profound reflection prompts a reconsideration of both the content and methods of education, accompanied by a reevaluation of our expectations and beliefs. I advocate for the integral role of coaching, teaching, and providing support throughout the learning journey, focusing on skills for effective information navigation and essential competencies, alongside achieving the ultimate outcome. Tackling this challenge necessitates a comprehensive strategy, prioritizing the learning process, instilling productive work habits, and nurturing competencies such as critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and communication. The key lies in developing age-appropriate scaffolding that bolsters these fundamental aspects of a well-rounded education for each student, while utilizing AI tools to amplify their learning, engagement, and overall educational experience.

My journey as a teacher

As a teacher, I've explored and tried various AI tools and tried combining them with other digital possibilities with the aim of crafting an enhanced version of myself as both a professional educator and learner. However, I've come to realize that exploring the full potential of these possibilities demands a significant investment of time.

For teachers, this is not new. Integrating any digital tool, whether it be to enhance our professional skills and/or learning, means a substantial time investment and does affect our workload. It will require a careful balance to ensure that the endeavor contributes positively to the teacher's well-being, allowing for both professional growth and a manageable workload. This is especially important considering the current challenges faced by the teaching profession of retaining existing educators and attracting new ones, which has become increasingly difficult for a variety of reasons.

The influence of AI appears to be more prominent in terms of learning outcomes, pedagogy, assessment, and student engagement, rather than in our other professional responsibilities like planning, particularly at the secondary and tertiary levels. For us at these levels, achieving a balance in this pivotal moment is almost laughable in the face of the challenges. While AI tools offer opportunities for enhanced teaching, learning, and workload efficiencies, the revolutionary transformation of AI has increased our current workload because of all the challenges we are trying to adapt, implement, and navigate in this ever-evolving landscape. Striking a feasible balance requires thoughtful planning, robust support systems, and professional development to help teachers effectively integrate AI tools without overwhelming their workload, yet this is not what’s happening.

Transitioning from the challenges of integrating AI and addressing workload concerns, I've found solace and empowerment in embracing specific AI tools. In refining my planning, creativity, and lesson diversification, ChatGPT has proven to be transformative. Exploring alternatives like Copilot, Khanmigo, Magic School, Diffit, and Curipod to elevate various aspects of my profession, including creating materials—particularly challenging in non-English languages—managing administrative tasks and professional correspondence, generating prompts, and providing essay feedback etc. If these names sound unfamiliar, don't worry – they were once unfamiliar to me as well, just a few months ago and I’m still not comfortable utilizing every single one, nor should I be. In the realm of assessment and evaluation, spanning testing, rubrics, and formative feedback, I've been immersing myself in Gradescope as well as the tools above. In the context of teaching a second language, my exploration has led me to trying to see how Duolingo and Babbel fit into my classroom. While Brightbytes aids in data analysis for informed decision-making, the reality remains that the broader educational system must acknowledge and address the challenges posed by the rapid integration of AI tools to facilitate a smoother transition for educators and our learners.

I teach in the global north, and though I have been exposed in many ways to the global south education and teaching context, I understand that my reality could be vastly different for others - context matters in education. The integration of AI in education could raise both positive and negative implications for global equity and the decolonization of education. On the positive side, AI could enhance access to educational resources, providing personalized learning experiences and bridging gaps for learners in underserved regions. However, challenges emerge in terms of equitable access to AI technologies, as wealthier nations often have greater resources to implement cutting-edge tools, potentially exacerbating existing global disparities.

As an example, in rural areas, Labster offers a virtual lab, while tools like Caktus A.I. and ChatGPT support personalized tutoring. This, combined with Gradescope and Flipgrid, enables students to document their learning on Microsoft Teams. Despite imperfections, it does offer an enhanced academic experience, and demonstrates the indispensable role of the teacher in navigating all these elements. It proves especially impactful in bridging equity gaps and fostering inclusivity in classrooms, emphasizing that AI complements, not replaces, teachers.

In the context of decolonizing education, AI can offer diverse perspectives and inclusive content, challenging traditional Eurocentric narratives. Yet, there's a risk of continuing and amplifying biases ingrained in the algorithms if not carefully designed, especially considering that it’s mostly being done in English. The reliance on AI systems developed in predominantly Western contexts may inadvertently reinforce existing power imbalances, hindering efforts to create truly inclusive and culturally diverse educational environments which would represent the realities of our classroom today. Striking a balance involves intentional efforts to ensure equitable access to AI technologies globally, a conscientious approach to developing AI systems that consider diverse cultural perspectives and histories, fostering a more inclusive and equitable educational landscape.

What I would emphasize is that the use of AI or any digital tool should align with the age, skill level, and subject matter, while serving the goal of enhancing various facets of a holistic education and enhance the teaching and learning. As an example, a new theory about the mental health crisis appeared in a Edutopia article “that a primary cause is a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.” It is imperative that AI doesn’t become an overarching controlling presence in their lives reinforcing the delicate balance and interconnectedness that professional educators must do for a holistic education. The significance of age-appropriate implementation and scaffolding, the foundational building blocks, paves the way for a future where university students are adept at utilizing AI-driven personalized learning tutors or platforms in an ethical and responsible manner.

It can be a positive.

These explorations have solidified my thoughts on my personal practice in the classroom which has been to focus more on a holistic approach, engaging students with the process as much as the end product, conferencing with students to defend their thought process and reasoning, utilizing AI in a way that engages students such as looking at an AI generated text to teach critical thinking, cross-referencing, and collaboration, and teaching how to effectively use some of these AI tools.

A collective journey to mitigate the risks posed by AI

I typically approach disruption and new initiatives in my classroom with a sense of calm and quiet excitement to the possibilities. However, this journey has me feeling uncomfortable and remarkably destabilized. It takes an emotional toll, and many are not going at it alone, meeting on social media in groups such as “ChatGPT for teachers”. The scope of change we now face extends far beyond education with us being left behind by the quickness of its integration in the workforce. As educators and professionals, it's our responsibility to confront these feelings of fear and discomfort. We must actively engage with our lack of understanding to chart a way forward, avoiding being swept along paths that we intuitively know are not right.

Through my personal experiences and discussions with various stakeholders globally, it's become evident that we lack a comprehensive understanding of the vast landscape of AI, both in terms of its potential benefits in education and the potential pitfalls. While I am engaging with AI, I do so with a vigilant awareness of the uncertainties and challenges it poses.

In a recent article, Michelle Toh and Nectar Gan conducted a comparison between Baidu's ERNIE Bot 4.0, a product of the Chinese technology giant, and GPT-4. While both demonstrate similar capabilities, ERNIE Bot boasts a larger current knowledge base. What raises inherent concerns is ERNIE Bot's obligation to adhere to the directives of the ruling Communist party, involving content censorship and user blocking for questioning the government too frequently. It's noteworthy that China was among the first countries globally to establish policies on generative AI, a move followed by the EU a few weeks ago. In one instance, the aim is control and in the other its aim is to ensure ethical and responsible AI practices, addressing potential risks and challenges, and most importantly safeguarding fundamental rights and values.

The alarming aspect is the misuse of AI for government control, programming it purposefully with bias and misinformation. This underscores the importance of remaining vigilant against such pervasive actions but also against those that, without intent, perpetuate existing bias and inequities.

The other aspect of AI and any digital tool that keeps me up at night is protecting the student.

As we explore the use of these tools, we need to be aware that cybersecurity measures might not be current, but we do have some possible solutions. I have been looking at how implementing a blockchain-based system where each student has their own blockchain. A blockchain is a decentralized ledger technology recording transactions securely across multiple networked computers. Each block includes a timestamp and links to the prior block, forming an unalterable chronological record. This could be a viable solution for ownership and control of their educational digital data. Currently, can we really answer who owns the student’s data and work once they graduate? Are we and the students aware of how their data is being used from these digital tools? Each student's blockchain could securely store and manage their academic records, achievements, and other relevant data, providing a transparent and tamper-resistant ledger that the student owns and controls. However, careful consideration of privacy, security, and legal implications would be crucial in implementing such a system.

The impact we are witnessing and experiencing in this new era of AI within our high schools and universities is undeniably real, and our professional opinions must be acknowledged as integral to these larger discussions. We require real-time research, ongoing professional development, ideas for implementation based on our individual context, an environment and culture to empower our teacher agency, and the ability to pivot as necessary – all essential for teachers in this evolving and increasingly complex profession.

In the third and final article of this three-part series, I will explore ways forward, both in broad terms and with some suggestions on how educators can navigate these challenges and engage responsibly.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.