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The best way to think about AI for education

Woman on laptop with brain graphic over the top
Stuart Pedley-Smith
By Stuart Pedley-Smith, Kaplan Head of Learning Link to Stuart Pedley-Smith's LinkedIn profile

Artificial intelligence (AI) is fast becoming one of the most important forces of our time. It’s hiding in plain sight within your smartphone, helping Alexa or Siri offer up advice, powering your online searches, and targeting advertisements based on your interests.

Its latest form, Generative AI (GAI), has now emerged and been met with equal parts of excitement and apprehension. Many different sectors will find themselves presented with both risks and opportunities, and education is no exception.

For example, GAI has the potential to enhance teacher quality and efficiency by making grading faster, more consistent and accurate. It can also analyse large amounts of data on individual learners so that teaching interventions can be effectively personalised. However, concerns have also been raised, such as potential job losses in the sector and perpetuation of bias in the data sets used by AI systems that may treat some learners unfairly.

It’s essential that we understand the technology and its limitations. And more importantly, we must put what is happening into context to ensure that we don’t under or over react and can safeguard against its misuse.

A brief history of knowledge

The printing press: 1436

The development of the printing press back in 1436 is not only one of the most impactful events in terms of learning, but is regarded by many as one of the most important inventions in human history. It was the first real knowledge management system, standardising language, improving literacy and helping disseminate ideas around the world.

However, similarly to AI, opinion at the time was not universally positive. First, the printing press disrupted the traditional role of scribes. It also challenged established religious and political authorities, making it possible for the dissemination of new ideas and criticisms of the Church. And, finally, it enabled the spreading of controversial or false information due to the lack of controls on what could be printed… sound familiar?

The internet: 1989

Fast forward to the 1940’s and another new technology emerged - the modern computer. In 1989, its impact would go into overdrive with the invention of the internet. Books were no longer needed to store knowledge, we started communicating online, and the internet opened the doors to the world’s biggest library - and all for free.

And yet, like the printing press, there were concerns as more aspects of our lives were conducted online. Privacy and data security were (and still are) one concern - the internet also provides a platform for anonymity, which has led to an increase in online harassment, cyberbullying and hate speech. Misinformation and fake news proliferate, which makes it difficult to separate truth from lies.

Generative AI: present day

This brings us to the recent emergence of Generative AI. GAI is a type of artificial intelligence that can create new content, such as an image, text, and even music, based on patterns learnt from existing data. The word ‘generative’ is key - it is not simply finding existing knowledge, as is the case with search, but scanning vast data sets and creating something entirely new.

But, what makes GAI so special is the fact that we can chat with it - and it chats back. To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, it stands on the shoulders of giants. The data on which GAI relies on is only there because of the knowledge stored in those earlier books, amplified by the internet’s ability to capture and curate knowledge on a huge scale.

For knowledge to be of use to any learner, it needs to be curated, selected, organised and maintained. It also needs to be easy to navigate so that what is most important can be found quickly. And finally, it must be verified, to ensure that the knowledge is accurate, relevant and reliable. Generative AI does all of this incredibly well, arguably with the exception of accuracy. But over time, that will almost certainly improve.

Impact on education

It’s easy with any new technology to extrapolate its potential to an extreme, and then draw conclusions that seem logical but rarely prove to be accurate due to variables and unknowns. For this reason, in attempting to predict the impact of GAI on education, it’s best to think no further ahead than the next 5 years.

As such, the following are simply a few key thoughts to explore possibilities and stimulate discussion as to how GAI can be used for good.

GAI will change our relationship with knowledge

Each new technology impacts how we think about and engage with knowledge, and GAI is no exception. If we want to find an answer to a question, we Google it. If we want to learn how to do something, we watch a video on YouTube.

With GAI, we can engage in conversation, asking questions and receiving answers in real-time. This might result in a generation of learners who feel there is no need to learn anything, they can just look up the answer. But learning is about much more than answers - knowledge is needed to formulate the questions in the first place. Critical thinking isn’t possible without the building blocks of knowledge that underpin the process.

What do humans bring if they simply ask questions without having the ability to understand and challenge what they are told? More ideally, learners become experts at formulating challenging and thoughtful questions; seeking answers not just for the sake of a solution but because it leads to an improved level of understanding.

It has the potential to democratise knowledge

GAI has the potential to make education more accessible, because it can teach. It doesn’t simply answer questions - it can be designed to coach and encourage the learner to come up with their own solutions, just like a tutor would. It can also produce model answers and offer guidance as to how the learner’s answer might be improved.

And because it can do this at scale it means that a far greater number of people could have access to the support of a personal tutor, for little or no cost.

Increased do-it-yourself education

More than 200 years ago, writer Samuel Johnson reportedly stated that, “lectures were once useful;, but now when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary.” This ability to self-educate has always existed, and made even easier with YouTube and the internet. Yet, technology to date has mostly limited this to bite-sized segments of learning. Although the resources are freely available, the motivation and skills to use them are not - nor is there an emotional connection with peers or a shared learning experience.

GAI, however, can do much of this. You can ask how to best structure a series of topics, putting the easiest ones first. Or maybe you want feedback in a more motivational way, bringing in comparison with others so that you don’t feel like you’re on your own. Although in practice, getting the technology to do some of the above will be more difficult than it sounds, GAI brings the possibility of a ‘do-it-yourself- education a whole lot closer.

Teaching and delivery have to evolve

One important point about GAI is that learning hasn’t changed. It still remains fundamentally about transferring knowledge from short to long term memory - but the teacher now has a very powerful tool to help.

One approach would be to show learners how best to use GAI, providing them with the skills to prompt and gain accurate answers. Additionally, it can also be a study assistant inside the classroom that the teacher engages with, asking for a context to a situation, clarifying a point or offering up a better example.

Learners need to be prepared for misinformation

Perhaps the most critical challenge is the need to prepare learners to think critically and work out how to discern truth from falsehood amidst the vast sea of information available.

We have been trying to perfect this skill for thousands of years, and yet it still eludes. And it’s getting harder due to the apparent authenticity of much of the content we see, and GAI can take this to a whole new level. If we add the tendency we all have to seek out and remember only the information that confirms our preexisting beliefs (confirmation bias), you have a combination that can easily result in division, each side believing that they are right with the evidence to prove it.

Final thoughts

As we explore the potential impact of GAI on education, it is essential to consider the lessons of history. By understanding the disruptions and benefits brought about by transformational innovations of the past, like the printing press and the internet, we can better prepare for the future.

It’s crucial to remain vigilant about the use of GAI and to actively promote critical thinking and digital literacy. By drawing from the past, we can harness the potential this technology will bring and create a future where active learning and knowledge are accessible to more people than ever before.

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