What’s all this fuss about AI in education?

For many people, AI has only entered their vocabulary in the last year, since OpenAI released their ChatGPT chatbot last fall.  In reality, however, AI has been all around us for decades.  We just haven’t noticed it (much).

Early in the development of AI, it was known that properly trained AI software could be really good at deep knowledge on a narrow subject.  The resulting applications were called expert systems.

These systems were good at doing something very specific, but which required some deep knowledge.  Think here in terms of diagnostic systems like the computer that your mechanic uses to diagnose problems in your car (these systems are now built into your car and so your car is basically self-diagnosing).  Or systems that healthcare professionals have used for decades to help diagnose and treat diseases.  Autopilots on aircraft have been around for a long time.  More recently, think of self-driving cars, autonomous drones, self-healing hardware, and automated homes.

AI has been invisible

In essence, AI has been all around us for a long time.  We just haven’t particularly noticed it.

In essence, AI has been all around us for a long time.  We just haven’t particularly noticed it.

In education, we have had our share of AI applications as well.  We’ve just taken them for granted as they’ve come along, viewing them as the latest technologies.  Think, for example, of personalized learning (as in the modern foreign language classroom), self-paced tutorials, automated essay scoring, predictive analytics (feed enough data to an AI and let it decide if the candidate is college material), and AI-driven virtual reality opening up possibilities of all kinds in labs, history classrooms, and political science simulations.

As educators, we have accepted most of these things as great steps forward.  Why?  Becuase they make our teaching more flexible, take some of the mundane tasks away from us, and let us focus more on individual students.  That’s a good thing.

Enter ChatGPT

But when ChatGPT came along, educators had panic attacks.  All of a sudden, here is something that students can use to circumvent the traditional learning process and get an assignment done without actually learning anything.  AI could write essays, and even research papers.  Students grabbed onto it right away and just spent their time formulating AI queries instead of term paper outlines.  Educators weren’t sure how to cope with it, or how it would inevitably rattle the very foundations of education as we know it.

Where are we headed?

Like everything else in technology, we have step back and take a closer look.  AI is not infallible.  In fact, like any student, it only knows what it is fed.  And even though it can eat a lot, very fast, and hold on to that data, it can’t always make good sense out of it in the same way that a human can.  There are many flaws.  If one understands these flaws, and is willing to work with them, AI can be beneficial.

In this blog, we will be exploring both the flaws and the strengths of AI.  We’ll look at tools, examine things from the student viewpoint, the educator viewpoint, and the policymaker viewpoint.  We’ll try to look at both the pros and the cons of the AI technologies that are coming along faster than we can digest them.  It’ll be a bumpy ride for a while, but like any other challenge we’ll get through it with a methodical approach that allows us to sift through the chaff and separate the wheat.  There are some great things that AI can do, but there are some pitfalls as well.  But we are up to the task. Awareness and knowldege are our best ways forward.