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The value of being human: How teachers can work alongside AI

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The recently ended strike by the Writers Guild of America, which sought to raise the pay and improve conditions of TV and film writers in an industry virtually upended by the rise of streaming services, also secured tentative agreement on the regulation of artificial intelligence in scriptwriting, highlighting the very real and particular complexities presented by artificial intelligence in a steadily growing number of industries.

While most people recognise the value of AI, it is also tempting to frame AI as a fundamental competitor to human endeavour, particularly when human livelihoods are at stake, as they were in the case of the Hollywood-based guild strike.

That’s why I was pleased to read the reported comment by Professor of Information Technology at Babson College Tom Davenport who told the media that the deal reached by the writers’ guild and the film industry “pretty much ensures that if you’re going to use AI, it’s going to be humans working alongside AI. That, to me, has always been the best way to use any form of AI.”

AI in education

Like the film industry and others, the world of education is also having to contend with the challenges that come with AI. While AI is not a new phenomenon by any means (think search engines, Google Maps or IBM Watson), the relatively recent release of ChatGPT captured the public imagination and brought the issue of AI into the spotlight.

Being able to throw out a question and have ChatGPT come back and provide a coherent summary on a complex topic – albeit drawn from known knowledge – is an impressive and, let’s be honest, useful function. But for educators keen on nurturing research and writing skills, not to mention qualities such as critical thinking and independent learning, it poses some real challenges.

As we approach World Teachers’ Day on 5 October, which celebrates the important work of teachers, we have a chance to reflect on the impact of AI in the education space and some of the opportunities it presents to improve teaching and learning.

Like any tool properly used, AI can make our lives easier and more efficient. In education it is a tool that both students and teachers can use to help improve the quality of the student’s educational experience.

One example of this potential lies in the area of advancing individualised learning, listed by the United States National Academy of Engineering as one of its 14 grand challenges. Individualised or personalised learning recognises that different individuals learn in different ways.

From my own experience as a student and from the programmes we accredit as ABET, we know that students who are accepted, for example into an engineering or computing programme at post-secondary level, have roughly the same starting point. In other words, they have similar levels of intelligence, but they go on to obtain vastly different grades. Some scrape through while others excel. So the question as an educator becomes how to connect with different students more directly to maximise their learning potential.

Can we use AI to develop teaching methods that optimise learning and maximise student potential? Or at least help us to get to that point faster? The answer, as far as I am concerned, is a resonant yes. AI can help. At the very least, it can help us to identify those students who could benefit from a different approach, possibly long before the individual tutor or teacher is able to make that call.

Are students actually learning?

When it comes to education, the burning question is always: are our students learning? If you throw AI into the mix, the question becomes a little more fraught. If students are relying too heavily on AI, there is the chance that they may not be acquiring the skills they need to research, synthesise information and construct a reasonable argument. This is what most people think is at risk with large language models such as ChatGPT.

As I suggested earlier, ChatGPT and other large language models are simply an extension of the kind of technology-based resources that have been available to students for the past 10 or so years via internet search engines. The (newer) AI part is simply the fitting of all the pieces together in a coherent way. And it is here that faculty and institutions have their work cut out for them: if they are demanding original work, students must be required to document and reference and be forthright about where they are getting their information and how it’s being assembled.

A critical aspect of this process involves honesty and integrity, but having some sort of software to identify AI-generated material will undoubtedly be helpful – and necessary. Without seeking to frame the issue as a battle between faculty and students, I think there has to be an understanding that there are times students can use AI, but sometimes original work is required. Enforcing that distinction is important.

The value of teachers

Despite the doomsayers who predict an AI takeover in workplaces around the world (and notwithstanding the scriptwriters’ fears), I believe it is highly unlikely that teachers will become redundant as a result of AI.

Teaching is an amazing profession. The impact that teachers have on the lives of their students can be profound and last forever. Whether at high school or college, most of us can recall those teachers who were outstanding and had an important impact on one’s life and career.

For me this can be reduced to the irreplaceable value of human connection in education. While AI can help to fill in some of the gaps, perhaps with some foundational data gathering, it cannot meet the enduring human need for personal connection, the reward that comes from the sharing of knowledge and the satisfaction and stimulation that comes from grappling in a collective with some of the philosophical and ultimately human challenges that life presents.

AI is now a part of our evolution in technology – there can be no hiding our heads in the sand and pretending it’s not there – and teachers need to be encouraged to find ways to bring AI into the classroom and have students use it in a way that is beneficial to them in the long term. AI can be a brilliant tool for teachers and students, provided they find a way, as Davenport said, to work alongside it.

Michael KJ Milligan is chief executive officer of ABET.

This article is promoted by ABET.