AI in Education – the future of learning is… now?

Rossall INSPIRE is the umbrella under which members of the Rossall community come together to share knowledge, ideas and perspectives on all aspects of education and learning. David Clarke, our Head of History and Politics, and Director of Professional Development explores the interesting topic of AI in education.

The image below – ‘Théâtre D’opéra Spatial’ by Jason Allen – took home the Blue Ribbon in the Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition in August 2022 – an event at which prizes are awarded in all of the usual categories – painting, quilting and sculpture. As a fan of Ralph McQuarrie’s concept artwork for the original Star Wars saga, and it also being somewhat evocative of Frank Herbert’s Dune, I found the image really rather eyecatching…

Yet Allen had neither painstakingly crafted the piece with brush nor lump of clay; he had created it with Midjourney, an artificial intelligence (AI) program that can almost immediately translate text prompts into hyper-realistic graphical interpretations. This is the first time that an AI-generated piece has won such a prize, setting off a fierce backlash from artists who accused him of, essentially, cheating.

AI-generated artwork has been around for years now, but a new wave of tools released over the past twelve months – Midjourney, DALL·E 2, Stable Diffusion – have made it entirely possible for complete amateurs to create increasingly complex, abstract or photorealistic works simply by popping a few select phrases into a text box. Understandably, many skilled artists are somewhat nervous about their own futures – why would anyone stump up for their art, they ponder, when they can generate it themselves?

And so it is with educators… AI and generative technology is increasingly relevant, influential and disruptive in almost equal measure. AI-powered tools and resources are rapidly transforming many industries, and education is no exception, offering new ways for teachers and students to collaborate, and enhancing the learner experience for the better, some will argue. Learning management systems, gamification, video-assisted learning, virtual and augmented reality are some examples of how technology has undoubtedly improved student engagement and education planning. Classroom response systems have allowed students to answer multiple-choice questions and engage in real-time decisions instantly. Undoubtedly, AI offers a number of potential opportunities for educators and their students. For example, AI can be used to assess individual student needs and provide them with personalised instruction and learning resources – DreamBox and ScribeSense are making this a reality; AI can provide students with timely and detailed feedback on their work, helping them to develop their knowledge, understanding and skills; it can be utilised to automate some of the more repetitive and time-consuming tasks that teachers find themselves needing to do.

OpenAI’s ChatGPT first came to my attention in early 2023, and I have been using it for the last ten months or so, very keen to get to grips with the implications of reducing administrative workload and finding new ways of working for the benefit of my students. ChatGPT can generate writing prompts, summarise lengthy passages of text, create comprehension quizzes, cloze exercises and mark work using exam-board rubrics. Armed with AI-powered tools that assist in creating engaging and dynamic learning materials, I’ve used ChatGPT and Google’s Bard to generate ideas for ‘Do it Now’ lesson starters, to write policies (scrutinised and edited, of course!), detailed lesson plans and schemes of work, draft routine emails to colleagues and much more. All of this means freeing up precious time for me to focus on arguably more impactful activities, such as interacting directly with my students and providing individualised support.

AI technology is also breaking down barriers for students with diverse needs. Speech-to-text and text-to-speech tools ensure that every student, regardless of their abilities, can participate fully in the learning process. Examples of the effective use of AI right now include The National Literacy Trust using AI to develop a personalised reading program for primary school children. The program uses AI to assess each child’s reading level and interests, and then recommends books and activities that are tailored to their needs. The University of Edinburgh is using AI to develop a system that can grade essays more accurately and efficiently than human markers. Though still under development, it has the potential to revolutionise the way that essays are graded in higher education.

Yet, despite all of the potential opportunities, it is important to remain cognisant of the threats and pitfalls of using AI in education. With great technological power comes great responsibility too! It’s imperative that schools take measures to protect students’ privacy and ensure that data is handled responsibly; the ethical considerations of these new technologies and the implications for student work completion and assessment are obvious, and just a little bit worrying. On another level, the generation of misinformation, disinformation and in-built biases will become ever more difficult to spot. For school leaders, we must ensure that just about any school policy is revised and discussed with parents, governors and students as soon as possible.

On a human level, it is no surprise that educators are fearful of their own positions, much like the artists at the growing threat from platforms such as Midjourney. There’s a very real concern that AI might, in time, replace teachers, but it’s important we remember that technology simply cannot replace the human connection. Teachers bring empathy, mentorship, and guidance that are essential for a well-rounded education. While AI is a powerful tool, it’s crucial to strike a balance. Nothing can replace hands-on experiences and face-to-face interactions.

There is little doubt that the future of education is now. AI and generative technology such as ChatGPT, Google Bard and Midjourney have the power to revolutionise the ways we learn and teach. By using AI responsibly and ethically, we can create a more personalised, engaging, and equitable learning experience for all students. The key lies in finding the perfect synergy between AI and human interaction. Teachers play a vital role in guiding students, while AI provides invaluable support in tailoring learning experiences. Together, they create a dynamic and enriching environment.

As students, parents, and educators, it is our collective responsibility to navigate this digital transformation responsibly. By staying informed and engaged, we can ensure that AI is harnessed to empower and enhance the educational journey for all. In embracing this digital era, we’re paving the way for a generation of learners who are equipped with the skills and knowledge that they are going to need to excel in a rapidly changing world. The future of education is here, it’s now… and it’s exciting!

David Clarke