Unless we’ve been completely off the grid during past several months, the topic of AI – artificial intelligence – has likely piqued our interest. ChatGPT. Facial recognition. Chatbots. Text Editors. Autocorrect. Digital Assistants. For those of us who came-of-age during the Star Wars and Jetsons years, the notion that a computer could think and learn was something for science fiction fantasy. So, what exactly is artificial intelligence, or “AI”?
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science that combines machine learning, algorithm development, and natural language processing. It is the ability for a computer to think and learn and perform tasks typically done by people. Its importance has mostly been highlighted in secondary and higher education, but seldom seriously considered at the elementary level, which is surprising since children are already surrounded by examples of AI every day. Many kids interact with tablets and toys within their first years of life and have robots in their homes and intelligent agents in their pockets from an early age. Even toys and trinkets have significantly more computing power than personal computers had just a decade ago, so AI should definitely a topic of interest beginning in early childhood education.
What are the implications and important considerations when it comes to AI in the lives of our children in elementary schools?
No one can deny that technology is an essential part of human progress. Whether it be our pens, scissors, or smart phones, technology has allowed us to excel in our environments. Schools are no exception. With technology becoming more ubiquitous and classrooms becoming more digital, we must take the time to properly understand the pros and cons of any tech decision at our school, understanding that it has the potential to impact classrooms in a far-reaching way.
So what about AI and how should we be thinking about it at Matthews Hall? As with many educational issues, there are advantages and disadvantages that must be weighed.
AI can be effective for things such as personalized learning, allowing teachers to customize the curriculum to individual learner needs. We already see the benefits and power of some forms of virtual reality learning that extend the boundaries of the classroom. AI also makes machine translation much more authentic today by bridging the language gap for many second language students. None of these applications and uses is controversial and most are already features of contemporary classrooms.
But what about the cons? Certainly cost is a factor. Only the most consistently well-funded schools will ever find themselves in a position to benefit from cutting-edge AI. However, topping the list of concerns for most experts is a lack of personal human connection. While smart machines may enhance some educational experiences, AI should not be considered a substitute for personal or human interaction. Relying too much on machines, computers, and algorithms to grade or instruct can lead to educational oversights that hurt learners more than helping them.
And, of course, the ever-present risk of technology addiction. As children (and adults!) increasingly rely on machines to make everyday tasks more efficient, we risk feeding the over dependence that can follow the widespread adoption of technology use. When our children depend too much on “techie tools” in their learning and everyday lives, their ability to think and weigh and intuit and analyze and synthesize can be seriously stunted.
The topic of AI is a fascinating one that requires prudence and planning and commitment to the learning and development of the human person – especially during childhood.
If schools end up following the AI crowd blindly without asking such critical questions, they run the risk of creating deus ex machina (or “a god out of the machine”).
Will AI be a ‘decider’, as in “…oh, the AI system says this is what I should do” or will it be an ‘adviser’?
Food for thought.
Ric Anderson, Head of School