EdTech Round Up: The Specter of Artificial Intelligence

by Bryan & Francis

In this second installment of our new series examining the ways that technological innovation is affecting the classroom, Bryan and Francis discuss their reactions to a recent CNN OpEd written by a high school student advocating for increased use of AI in student instruction.

BC: This fall, as I was searching for thought-provoking articles to discuss with a student of mine, I happened upon a CNN opinion piece on the role of artificial intelligence in the classroom. Unlike many other such articles, however, this one assumed a hopeful outlook, attempting to highlight the ways that AI could benefit students’ education without resorting to cheating or breaking honor codes. The author was herself a high school student, and I was intrigued to read her perspective–and of course, I had to send it to Francis and dissect it afterwards.

While she made some good and some flawed points, one of her most refreshing takes, though not necessarily a unique one, is the acknowledgement that while AI can assist students in writing essays, it cannot actually write good ones. As with many technological innovations, AI can save certain types of labor–like the act of composition-while requiring increased effort in other arenas–such as asking questions of the AI and refining its process to come up with an acceptable finished product. While this certainly can lead to an increased understanding of one’s topic, however, is such a process of composition with AI really worth it?

FB: I do not think so. Using AI to brainstorm ideas subverts the inherent value in an analyzing writing assignment. While teachers assess students’ content knowledge in essays, their point is to help students develop skills at brainstorming, organizing their thinking, and writing coherently and cogently. Her contentions that AI can or should aid this process undermine the entire reason teachers teach analytical writing and rob students of the opportunity to actually practice thinking through writing. AI has access to a wealth of internet knowledge that could dump too much sophisticated information in front of a student and make it actually harder for them to present and defend a claim. There’s also a risk that the AI platform they use presents factually incorrect information depending on the prompts the student employed. I’m not sure that high school students or undergraduates would have the knowledge to determine fact from fiction as they research topics in introductory courses. I guess as a teacher I’m worried that teaching students to use AI subverts the important fundamentals students need to learn first before diverging or streamlining that process. 

BC: That’s why I think her point about AI being similar to calculators and even internet search engines in the initial resistance they face is a good one, though perhaps not in the way she intended. She’s right, to a point, but nowadays these tools are only allowed to be used in the classroom after students have demonstrated competence, if not mastery, of the skills they facilitate. In this way, I could indeed see AI bringing the future, but only at high levels of education, likely only starting in grad school or very late undergrad, bringing research projects that had previously been too ambitious into the realm of possibility for a single academic as an AI takes on the heavy lifting of collating data–as is already happening in the sciences.

FB: Her point that affects me the most, though, is her most unique argument in favor of AI She explains that AI can help students understand hard-to-explain subjects. I am torn about this. On the one hand, if I could train students to use an AI to explain concepts to them, that would lighten my workload and free me for more direct instruction with students who have the highest individual learning needs. Frankly, I do not have the time in class to even academically interact one-on-one with the twenty students in my room. I also have to prioritize differentiating all my materials and instruction to meet students’ learning needs first. This tool could help. On the other hand, schools are underfunded as it is and telling students to use AI tacitly signals that a Board of Education doesn’t trust or want to invest in its teachers. That is a demoralizing message to send and one that could even contribute to budget and staffing cuts. That said, just because this technology could hurt my longevity in teaching does not mean her point is inherently unproductive, either. 

BC: I initially agreed with your criticism, but upon reflection, I think this might indeed be her strongest point (even though it might even mean the end of relevance for much of my current tutoring jobs). I know from personal experience that even one on one, sometimes one person can’t come up with the best analogy or teaching style for their student. Here AI can come into its own, essentially giving students access to all teachers–or at least a far greater number of them–and thus increasing their chances of finding the best explanation for each student and increasing the quality of education overall. 

FB: As with all technology, though, it all comes down to responsible use, as the author herself admits. We can’t trust nearly every student to be of the caliber of one who writes for CNN while still in high school. Any proposal to use AI in class should be met with skepticism in the arena of primary and secondary education. Also, for any student who may read this, you would probably make your teacher’s day if you asked a specific question about the material you were learning. Sometimes all we want is just for a raised hand to be followed by an academic question and not a request to use the restroom.

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