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(This Week’s) Thoughts on AI in Education

I’ve been following the rise of AI in mainstream use with somewhat obsessive  fascination since ChatGPT first became a thing. Partly from a professional point of view as an educational content developer, but also because over the course of my career I can count on one hand the number of times something has come along that has made me rethink the way I work in a significant way. Trying to work out how this particular set of jacks will land in terms of educational practice is not yet clear, but the debate around how AI can be filtered into education to reduce teacher workload and benefit learning without damaging the skills of children to research, understand and construct responses is fierce. Some of the ‘AI for teachers’ social media groups that I am in feel as combative as they are supportive as people try to navigate their own understanding of the ever-growing number of tools out there and how they want to integrate them into their practice. And that’s before even getting on to how they think students should integrate them into their practice. 

So, here’s the thing. Last weekend the 12-year-old appeared waving her maths homework for me to check - it’s expanding algebraic double brackets and she definitely now knows more about this than I can remember from my school days. However, I am a 90s educated child, and therefore part of the women into STEM movement, so have a bit of a face-saving exercise on my hands. ‘Of course, I can check it’, I say with unfounded confidence. But clearly, it’s not possible for me to do at a glance and the only other way is to repeat the same process as her but probably with less accuracy - then end up asking her if she  thinks what I’m doing looks correct. 

So, I default to my new toy, ChatGPT and ask it to expand the problem. The 12- year-old looks uncomfortable - she’s aware enough of the debate around ChatGPT and suspects this might be cheating. But within seconds, there is the problem solved and with a full explanation of how, enabling her to see where she went wrong with the ones she hadn’t got right. We were both pretty chuffed. 

This ability to have something complex explained to you as if you had a teacher beside you (with all the usual caveats about incorrect answers, checking the facts etc) feels like an incredibly powerful tool for learning. One of the things that has been talked about for many years in education is personalised learning - giving every individual child the learning journey in incremental steps that is just right for them. It’s incredibly difficult to achieve in a classroom when you have 30 students each with differing needs, and these needs differ again depending on what you are teaching them at that moment. 

The ideal situation is that students need their learning intervened at exactly the point that their understanding falls away and that was what ChatGPT did in that moment for both my 12-year-old and me. 

I actually had my phone in my hand to use the calculator tool, but don’t think  that would have helped in this situation; Google searching would have been  lengthy and while it might have provided a model we could have followed, it wouldn’t have given the exact method for solving that exact problem. So ChatGPT provided what I aspired to be able to deliver to my pupils as a teacher  - a personalised learning experience that supported with exactly the right  information, delivered in the right incremental steps at the time when it was  really needed. To me, this feels like an entirely appropriate use of AI. It did not de-skill my child - she still needed to read, follow, and understand the process so that she could check, correct and repeat the procedure - and should a similar exercise come up again she will be handling from a place of increased knowledge and confidence. 

When I think about the years to come, how much harder her homework is going to get and how my ability to support her will decrease, it is reassuring for us both to know that there is a long term, reliable strategy available. Using AI tools in this way is also (largely) equitable - most secondary students have a phone and therefore ready access to a personalised learning online teacher who they can call on whenever necessary. Tutoring students in how to best prompt AI may need to form part of IT lessons, and of course clear guidelines from schools are needed about the appropriate use of the tools. Contrary to many of the comments on social media, not all students are delightedly looking to circumnavigate their education by asking AI to do all their work for them. Just as we are, they are working out how to manage this genie-out-of-the-bottle, knowing that it is going to have a significant effect on their immediate and long-term future. But for all the uncertainty (and why I reserve the right to change my opinion on AI on a weekly basis) knowing that there is now a neat, pocket-sized, free solution to a problem that has foxed educators for a long time and gives real, quantifiable benefit to students, feels like a good thing.