The power of AI in education
Generative AI has the unique potential to transform education by making it more focused on the student, says Dr Bernardo Pereira Nunes of The Australian National University (ANU).
Today’s students can access a range of new technologies and generative AI. How can we apply these tools in the classroom?
by Dr Bernardo Pereira Nunes
With new technology, such as ChatGPT, learners of every age can access state-of-the-art interactive intelligent agents to achieve more than ever before.
Artificial intelligence (AI) will reduce the factors that lead to inequality in our education systems — such as language barriers, class size, quality of teachers, textbooks and technology.
Here is just one fascinating example: very few families have enough money to hire private tutors for their kids. Most have access to a phone that connects to the Internet. We can now apply Vygotsky's idea of a "more capable peer" on a much larger scale.
Primary school children learn in combination classrooms — Year 1 with Year 2, for instance — because more capable peers can guide, support, and offer scaffolding to less experienced learners. This taps into the social nature of learning, where both the more capable and the less capable peers gain an understanding that they would not have been able to achieve independently.
With the advent and widespread availability of large language models, every student can have a peer for their learning journeys, not just when they are in the classroom but also at home, on the school bus, and so on.
From primary school to postgraduate classrooms, students may refrain from asking questions due to shyness, language barriers, or the fear of revealing that they don’t know the answer. To avoid embarrassment, they ask machines instead. That’s why Google sometimes knows more about teenagers than their parents do.
As teachers, we should lean into this; not run away.
We should focus on promoting the responsible and ethical use of these tools. We can assist learners to develop critical thinking and other important skills that machines can't teach. This includes important 'soft', or interpersonal, skills such as teamwork and leadership.
AI can help learners develop new skills and reduce social anxiety as they enter new learning scenarios. It can also help educators refine their methods and become better, more complete teachers. In the process, humans “help” AI models become better learning tools.
There are, of course, risks involved with using new technologies. Not everything generated by ChatGPT is accurate. There is danger in information monopoly, reinforcement and perpetuation of bias, and the ethical, moral and legal systems adopted by the tools. We need to be prepared and able to thoughtfully question these technologies.
But just as calculators, spellcheck, the Internet, search engines, and wikis have enhanced education in previous decades, AI tools can do the same.
And, generative AI has the unique potential to transform education by making it more focused on the student. It allows us to widely put into practice student-centred approaches. We can provide tools for self-directed learning sessions tailored to individual needs and goals. This will give students the knowledge, courage and confidence they need to thrive in any learning environment.
From a research perspective, AI is like a co-pilot with complimentary skills. Conducting research requires the exploration of new ideas with creativity, intuition, and critical thinking. AI might not provide the answer to a research question, but it can help us to explore. It's up to us as academics to guide the research and decide what's important for our future.
We need to consider the sustainability and equal access to technology with or without AI.
So, let’s not be afraid of generative AI.
This is an exciting time for education. Whether it's a machine or a person, there's no excuse for not learning. All we have to do is ask.
This post was adapted from Dr Nunes’ essay originally published in ORBICOM (The Network of UNESCO Chairs in Education).