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AI: a support or danger to learning?

By Zaira Imran

 

Since the pandemic, the innovation of AI technology and its integration into several industries and sectors has been rapid. Most notably, late 2022 saw the launch of ChatGPT, the landmark generative AI tool. Generative AI is especially transformative as it can answer questions, perform written tasks and respond to prompts while also being able to produce audio, images, text and video, making it particularly relevant for the education sector.  

 

The education sector was forced to embrace digitalisation as online learning became the norm during lockdowns; however, by now, classes have resumed similarly to pre-pandemic ways. This resistance to digitisation implies that it should not be taken for granted that AI will truly last in education spaces, let alone transform them. Nevertheless, the Department for Education actively supports the use of AI in schools. Many believe the pace of AI integration in industry necessitates its development in the education sector to keep the sector’s efficiency aligned with the world economy.  

 

This begs the question: how can policymakers take advantage of the benefits of AI in enhancing education without causing detriment to the learning experience of students?  

 

The Assumption of Necessity  

 

As the AI industry embeds itself within the economy more succinctly and at a rapid pace, it has become clear to many that AI is here to stay and will keep changing the way we work and communicate. Furthermore, as the world economy embraces AI technology, it is expected that all sectors, including education, must adapt to these changes, too. To further this point, the UK education sector currently struggles significantly from underfunding and teacher burnout. Hence, it could benefit from the supply-side tools that AI offers. These factors combined set up a situation in which education providers must adapt and embrace the potential of AI in order to stay afloat in this fast-changing high-tech world. It is equally important for students to understand how to use AI to equip them with the skills necessary for their future careers.  

 

Yet, it is worth questioning whether this necessity is real or whether it is a speculative prophecy. After all, the education sector is much less digitally integrated than the average company and British educators are not well trained in digital learning tools. There may also be concerns that this perceived necessity could blind policymakers and education providers into pursuing a wholesale AI revolution in the education sector whilst having little awareness of what AI is, how it is changing and what its integration would really mean for students’ learning experience. Within this context, perhaps the greater necessity lies in exercising caution and resistance regarding the implementation of AI as opposed to the full embrace of the technology.  

 

Help or Harm? 

 

The key benefits of AI in the classroom include reducing costs and teachers’ workloads while increasing efficiency and providing AI training and learning tools for students. Artificial intelligence could be used as teaching assistants to help teachers do administrative tasks like marking and lesson planning, they could equally be used as instructional assistants to help explain difficult concepts to students and administrative assistants for school administrators. These are some of the potential ways that AI could increase efficiency and reduce workloads. This is especially beneficial if it allows for more teacher-student interaction, as the teachers are not as distracted by their administrative tasks. An even more intriguing possibility of AI in the classroom is creating a more personalised learning experience as AI could help meet individual learning goals by analysing student data in order to decide the best speed at which the student learns, the materials they would prefer and the order that suits them.  

 

However, this hypothesis of the personalised learning experience immediately raises alarms around data privacy concerns and the highly individualised nature of learning this results in. A major concern is that the introduction of AI interferes with the social connections fostered in schools. A potential consequence of personalisation in the classroom is that students lack motivation to interact with each other as any help they require, they can get from their AI assistant. Similarly, it reduces the need for the student to ask the teacher for help which may be even more troublesome. As schools do not just function as spaces to acquire skills for careers but also spaces to grow and learn as people, the threat to social connection and collective learning that AI potentially poses is rather worrying. Furthermore, student skills cultivation may also be threatened by a personalised assistant AI as it provides many shortcuts for students in which they do not have to think critically or solve problems for themselves, resulting in dependence on technology. Therefore, it would be essential to foster students’ critical thinking abilities in how they are using AI, allowing them to develop their own considerations of its strengths and weaknesses.  

 

The Question of Implementation  

  

Besides the risk AI poses to student skills and socialisation, it also presents a large challenge to policymakers as AI grows and changes quicker than policymakers can comprehend it, let alone implement its integration and regulation. Teachers are also ‘bewildered’ at the pace of change. They cite concern for potential cheating, children’s mental health and the security of the teaching profession due to a lack of trust in the government’s ability to regulate the risks. Nevertheless, it is important for educational spaces to mirror the environments children will face when they grow, and AI can significantly benefit overstretched teachers. Therefore, a cautious, human-centred approach to integrating AI in schools is best, and this would likely involve AI acting as an administrative help as opposed to making choices and giving advice. The true benefit of AI in the classroom would be if it could help maximise teacher-student contact time and reduce teachers' burdens. Yet, it would still require regulation in the case of cheating and student use. AI integration in schools should be resistant rather than wholly ‘revolutionising.’ 

  

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