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With the advent of artificial intelligence, most notably ChatGPT, almost any task seems easy and convenient. While students are probably intrigued by this idea, teachers, school administrators and parents are less enthused. How can we guarantee learning if a machine can do all the heavy lifting? 

Two scenarios seem probable:

  1. either separate the student from the machine during class and assessments, or
  2. redesign learning objectives to include the use of this technology.

Given recent investments to modernize classrooms with more and more technology, it seems likely that school administrators will be reluctant to adopt the first scenario. So, if AI is here to stay, how can we rethink the learning process so that this tool is taken advantage of, and student performance is measured? 

Historical example 

Artificial intelligence is bound to disrupt many aspects of our lives. Ask it any question about any complex topic, and you’ll probably receive a complete and accurate answer. It is profound! If only there were an historical example that could help us understand the direction we are headed! 

I argue the calculator had a similar disruption. In a matter of seconds, complex calculations are performed, while most of us don’t fully understand how. I can imagine the concerns of math teachers that outright rejected the use of calculators in their classrooms back in the day. Maybe they asked things like, “How will we know our students have learned math if a calculator does all the work?” 

For a time, I can imagine these concerns were rampant; yet, slowly but surely learning objectives adapted to focus less on the result of the calculation, and more on the steps necessary to perform it, as well as the correct application of an operation given a scenario. I predict AI will have a similar effect on other school subjects, where lower-order skills (remembering, defining, searching, categorizing, etc.) will be performed by the AI, and higher-order skills by the students (synthesizing, arguing, collaborating, etc.).  

The right questions 

In the previous example, the calculator disrupted traditional methods, because if the tool exists, why not use it, especially when they are prevalently used in the workplace. In a similar fashion, AI can quickly provide complex answers; you just have to ask the right questions. Referencing his favorite philosophy book, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, Elon Musk said, 

The universe is the answer. What we really need to figure out are what questions to ask about the answer that is the universe. The question is the hard part. If you properly frame the question, then the answer is the relatively easy part. 

-Elon Musk on the Lex Fridman podcast1 

Importance of language 

If asking the right questions is at the heart of progress, the importance of language becomes obvious. In its current form, ChatGPT and others like it, require prompts from users, where information retrieved by the AI can differ greatly depending on how a question is phrased. This advanced technology uses machine learning, language modeling and sentiment analysis to interpret user prompts. And while great strides have been made, errors in interpretation can still occur – at times simply because of linguistic variations. While they are capable of functioning in other languages, most of these AI technologies were developed in the United States using English. Consequently, correct usage of the language, and all its nuances, give English speakers a leg up while using these tools. 

Whatsmore, according to recent studies2, over half of the websites on the Internet use English as the default language. Since the Internet is the primary source of information for these AI technologies, it becomes easy to imagine how productivity may depend greatly on how well language is used for creating prompts. While translation technologies are getting better day-by-day, there is still plenty of room for information to be lost in translation. 

Cautionary tale 

As a result of globalization, the world recognized a long time ago that learning English was important, which is exemplified by the fact that more people speak English as a foreign language than as their mother tongue. Given the previous argument about how language is key to productively using AI technologies, it seems likely that this trend will continue. In other words, by not knowing English, you are at a disadvantage. Yet another barrier to progress, which more often than not affects the poor and disenfranchised. 

Another point of concern is that the information retrieved by the AI is limited to the Internet, which as stated earlier is prone to be in English, and with the inherent cultural biases of its authors. There is a vast amount of knowledge and wisdom that just simply isn’t on the Internet because the peoples of many countries, for a myriad of reasons, aren’t online. We should be cautious not to rely solely on AI technologies for learning, and cross reference information from non-digital sources.  

Suggestions for using AI in the classroom 

The power of these AI technologies is undeniable. Students will greatly benefit from learning how to use them properly, since they will inevitably become commonplace in the workplace. So, if we were to rethink the classroom, how can we measure skills that make use of this technology, but keep students at the center of learning?  

As stated earlier, integrating AI into tasks to handle lower-order skills will probably be the path forward. Consequently, learning objectives for students will focus more on higher-order skills, like recognizing problems in the world, thinking critically about how to solve them, phrasing questions that allow them to gain insight into possible solutions, and defending these ideas with peers. By default, they will have to synthesize ideas from different sources, stay up to date on current affairs, and maybe the most important, verify facts. Fake news has been at the center of so many recent conversations, making it apparent that validating the veracity of information, and consider opposing views will be key skills to master for future generations. I remain optimistic about the future of education. I believe AI will provide a playground for curiosity. The classroom should too!

References

  1. 1. Fridman, L. [Lex clips]. 2022. Elon Musk: Meaning of Life . Youtube.
  2. 2. Richter, F. (2022, Feb. 21). English Is the Internet’s Universal Language. Statista.com

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