Why Educators Should Lean in to AI to Better Support Students
Plato once quoted Socrates lamenting that, “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written.”1 The ancient philosopher was speaking, of course, of the latest technology in the B.C. era: hand-written scrolls.
As humans, we’ve always had a somewhat complicated history with invention. On the one hand, we are driven to create tools that make our lives more efficient, but we also can’t help but feel a little uncertain of these new steps even as we are compelled to take them. With all new technology comes a great deal of trepidation that our previous ways of knowing are being lost. It goes with the territory, so to speak, whether we are living in ancient times or here in the 21st century.
Last spring, my university held an emergency faculty meeting about identifying papers written using artificial intelligence. Upon the release of ChatGPT in the fall of 2022, we noticed that some of our students had suddenly become “experts” at synthesizing research and organizing their term papers, often resulting in perfect scores on their written assignments. It was a bit of a dizzying experience trying to get ahead of the technology as we scrambled to find ways to cope with this impressive new platform, so seemingly well-equipped to help our students effortlessly complete their assignments.
We had been here before in the ’90s when we were all but certain that internet search engines had entirely ruined higher education. Despite those first days of insecurity, we decided to teach ourselves to lean in to technology rather than distance ourselves from it. Teachers and librarians began to integrate online formats into the learning experience, with great success and often with highly desired outcomes. It worked out perfectly!
But just as we were relaxing into a smug sense of mastery, AI happened, and it unexpectedly upended the whole deal.
With our lessons on leaning in not far behind us, we knew we had to embrace this new technology. We also knew that the detection software was not far behind, and in fact, it was released by the next term. The best way to harness a monster, after all, is to create a more powerful one.
Yet in our rush to control the technology, we may have initially overlooked the gifts that had been given to us via AI. In truth, this new invention can take us to next-level learning, and we are just now unlocking the full potential of this in our classrooms.
Ways that students and educators may benefit from using AI include:
- Creating an opportunity to rethink gender equality in technology
- Offering support for people learning English as a second language
- Enabling alternative instruction techniques for atypical learning
- Teaching students to share and sharpen their thoughts
An Opportunity to Rethink Gender Equality in Technology
Gender inequality in technology development and user design is a well-known challenge; expanding technology use is part of the solution. Melinda Gates has recently given a series of interviews sounding the alarm over the inherent male-centered bias of AI, among other concerns.
To shift AI toward being a more neutral, individual-oriented tool, educators can commit to teaching and supporting the use of gender decoders, which are algorithms that detect a lack of gender inclusivity, and other modalities aimed at achieving design balance.
On a grand scale, the United Nations is working on an agenda to address this and other concerns at the Global Digital Compact session in fall of 2024, which aims to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all.” At the individual level, though, we can each encourage and inspire the students in our classrooms to consider how to address such complex issues as gender bias in their own use (and design) of technology tools. The STEM gender gap remains an area of much-needed attention that we, as educators, can actively work on improving in our daily lessons.
Support for People Learning English as a Second Language
AI offers people who are learning English new and improved avenues for more effective communication. Language AI modeling tools can assist learners with pronunciation, grammar and translation, responding receptively in real time through simulated chats and quizzing techniques.
Some formats even allow learners to generate 3D images based on their written instructions, creating an instant multi-sensory experience as they work on their language skills. The benefit to our classrooms is immeasurable here as it can engage students at their proficiency level, helping students keep up with their peers and the flow of class material.
This technology can be reversed too, assisting English-speaking students in foreign language acquisition. Such tools set the foundation for meeting the needs of a 21st century economy, where global communication skills are essential for students and teachers alike.
Alternative Instruction for Atypical Learning
This is a game-changer for neurodivergent students or those with specialized educational needs. Visual or auditory challenges can effectively be addressed via AI, as programs can be coded to communicate via sign language or translate written words into speech. AI configurations can also provide students with audio, pictures, or project-driven materials according to personalized feedback.
One of the strengths of the software is that it can be prompted to explain the same concept in several different ways. This allows students the ability to repetitively work through difficult subjects until they locate an explanation of the material that resonates with them.
Additionally, researchers have found that some learners with autism or ADHD, for example, respond more positively to lessons provided by robots than other approaches that have been used. One of the key findings is that mechanized bots don’t demonstrate facial feedback that could be construed as unsupportive or judgmental. Broader research is currently underway, indicating that this is an area of growth investment for our schools.
Teaching Students to Share and Sharpen Their Thoughts
Students shouldn’t use AI to write their papers, but it can help them get started with the hardest part: organization. In my classrooms, I encourage some students to use ChatGPT for expediency in brainstorming paper topics. This includes using AI for designing outlines, learning about core foundational designs (like how to build a thesis), or integrating appropriate stylized citations. In this way, it is the starting point for research, and the heavy lifting comes on the other end of the information garnered from the software.
For example, since AI is hugely prone to internal factual flaws, students must fact-check and cross-reference every statement generated by the tool. Critical thinking comes into play as students must locate, read and determine the legitimacy of each original source. The next step is to formulate and express their own ideas on the subject matter. In this way, we encourage a healthy dose of skepticism in our learners, motivating them to take control of tech-generated content rather than be passive consumers of it.
While the future of AI is unclear, I am taking a lean in approach as we journey toward this frontier. As with all new inventions (from hand-written scrolls to talking robots), I’m learning to accept the setbacks that might come with such giant leaps forward, hopeful that AI will provide us with innovative tools to help every student reach their highest potential.
1 Plato (1952) [c. 360 B.C.E.]. Phaedrus. Translated by Reginald Hackfort. pp. 274c-275 b.