AI in Schools: Empowering Teachers and Students While Navigating Ethical Minefields

We now take the internet for granted but, a scant few decades ago, it was a startling new medium that scared many people, who preferred to stick with the tried-and-true technology they understood: telephone, TV, radio. Yet, once upon a time, those technologies were also new and strange. It’s a brave, new, rapidly evolving world, to amend Aldous Huxley, and artificial intelligence is simply the latest iteration in our technological growth.

As EarthLink founder Sky Dayton wrote 20 years ago in his seminal article, Education in the Internet Age, “The Internet offers much more than simply changing the media. History shows that nearly every great advance in civilization was preceded by an advance in communications technology — from the earliest invention of language to the printing press to the telephone.

“In the Middle Ages, for instance, books were rare commodities. Monks and scholars spent lifetimes copying texts by hand. Because few could afford to own books, knowledge was available to only a small number of people. In the mid-1400s, Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press. Suddenly, written works could be copied quickly, accurately and in great quantities. Books were cheaper and easier to come by, and, for the first time ever, the common man had firsthand access to knowledge.”

AI in Schools Empowering Teachers and Students While Navigating Ethical Minefields


The Invisible AI All Around Us

Just as the internet functions in a medium we can’t touch or see except via its output, AI surrounds us daily, even if we don’t think we’re using it. Every time you do an online search, get driving directions, or even read your email, you’re using the applications of artificial intelligence. And we need this assistance, especially in the classroom. Personalized learning, for instance, supports teachers and students in several ways:

·      Tailoring instruction to a student’s ability level

·      Providing timely, detailed feedback on the students’ writing

·      Freeing up teacher time and capacity to interact directly with more students.

A Microsoft report of 2000+ teachers and students from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Singapore confirms that AI supports student learning progressions — and is able to identify gaps in student knowledge and accommodate them.

So what’s the worry?


Ethical Concerns

 Here are some of the key issues teachers and students need to be aware of when AI becomes part of the curriculum:

·      Privacy. Now that all of our data is virtually accessible 24/7, privacy is a huge issue, not just in education but everywhere. In terms of AI, the more personal information we share in online platforms, the harder it becomes to protect this information. Most people give uninformed consent; that is, they don’t really think about how the information being collected is going to be shared. They just click “Accept” to the Terms & Conditions. Once their information is in the system, the ability to control what happens to it is out of human hands.

·      Surveillance closely relates to privacy. While tracking systems can help determine students’ strengths, weaknesses, and learning patterns, it can also make students cautious about sharing their ideas, if they know everything they present is being monitored.

·      Autonomy. Again: can students act in their own interests if an algorithm is predicting the outcome?

·      Bias and discrimination. These can appear as unintentional gendered language translation (“He is a doctor.” “She is a nurse.”). AI models in language translation carry societal biases and stereotypes into the learning environment. The same problematic issue arises with facial recognition software, which can skew negatively toward certain cultural or ethnic groups.


How AI Can Help Both Educators and Students

Clearly, these thorny issues are part of mastering this new technology. The best way to do this is through education: learning more about AI and how it can accelerate student’s development and make teaching more rewarding.

AI tools can catalyze transformation in our educational system when all children have an equal opportunity to thrive. Some key principles to help us get there include:

·      Digital literacy. Make digital and AI literacy a priority in education. For instance, the MIT Media Lab team offers an open-access curriculum on AI and ethics for both middle school students and teachers. They also offer an “AI and Data Privacy” workshop for students in K-9. Imagine learning about digital privacy while you’re learning to read and write! It will soon be as commonplace as using a smartphone is to digital natives.

·      Collaboration. School systems can bring ed-tech professionals and educators from diverse communities together to share ideas on the applications of AI that address strong learning objectives, local needs, and cultural contexts, to help overcome potential biases and inequities.

·      Innovation. AI is currently the new kid on the block, technologically speaking. It’s up to school administrations to support teachers and foster an environment of adaptability and innovation. Teachers who encourage peer-to-peer learning and specialized training need to be recognized and rewarded.

·      Leading by example. Collect and share inspiring stories of educators who are using AI to support their students’ curiosity, agency, and growth as individuals.

AI is a new educational tool to master. One day soon, it will be as integrated into education and into our lives overall as the Internet is today — and we’ll be looking a bit warily at whatever technology appears next.