Special Report

How Educators Can Use Artificial Intelligence as a Teaching Tool

By Mark Lieberman — May 19, 2020 5 min read
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Deb Norton spends her days helping teachers in Wisconsin’s Oshkosh Area school district get more comfortable with technology tools they’re using to engage students. A few years ago, she started seeing increasing mentions of artificial intelligence. Around then, the International Society for Technology in Education asked her to lead a course on the uses of artificial intelligence in the K-12 classroom.

She was initially intrigued when she saw students light up at the mention of artificial intelligence. It soon became clear to her that they were already experiencing AI in their daily lives, with tools like Instagram filters or chatbots on websites. “Watching them interact with this content really draws me in,” Norton said.

Since then, she’s been connecting an increasingly diverse set of educators with the possibilities of AI as a teaching tool. The course includes sections on the definition of artificial intelligence; machine learning; voice experiences and chatbots; and the role of data in AI systems. Attendees include K-12 teachers, administrators, and tech leaders, as well as representatives of technology companies.

Part of her mission has been to communicate that AI isn’t new—the term was coined in 1956, and research has been underway for even longer, but “now, we’re starting to use it in our everyday lives,” she said.

“AI is so strong today that it can create a written paper, a song, a poem, a dance,” Norton said. “Humans can perceive it as something that was created by a human when, in fact, AI created it on its own.”

Here’s what she thinks about its potential and the challenges to broader implementation.

How do you define AI ?


I think the most important thing that people have to realize is that artificial intelligence does encompass more than just a computer that can perform a task. Many people think artificial intelligence is just when my little Alexa Dot over there talks to me or when Netflix makes a recommendation for me. They often think it’s a task-oriented type of thing. Our goal is often to think of AI beyond just performing tasks to something that is able to make decisions and hold conversations.

What role is AI playing in K-12 classrooms right now?

Many teachers will put together some type of interactive presentation just to present AI to the class, using real interactive components with the lessons so students are creating some of these cool AI experiments. Tech-coach administrators might present AI to teachers, getting them that knowledge or information through some type of workshop or webinar.

I had a group not long ago that created a lesson about machine learning using AI, and it was all tied to yoga, and how the student could do the yoga pose that could be recognized through machine learning, and then the machine could give them feedback on their yoga poses.

A lot of folks use the idea of how big data drives artificial intelligence. A lot of people go back [after the course] with creating chatbots or voice experiences. If you’re working with elementary students, it might be a simple coding site like Scratch where you can create an interactive character or a program for creating an Alexa skill.

Do you foresee interest in AI increasing as a result of remote learning during the pandemic?

AI could become a really big part of virtual learning and at-home learning, but I just don’t think we’re quite there yet. For many of our educators, they’re just dipping their feet into how this would work. Having a virtual tutor is something that is becoming more and more in the conversation of AI, but it is not something I see at this point in time being implemented.

I’m seeing little pieces of it globally, though—some seniors who were graduating in Japan could participate in their graduation via an AI robot that represents them. I’ve seen quite a few articles coming out of other countries on the ability to have a virtual tutor that cannot just spew information at you and test your knowledge but rather learn your way of learning. We’re not quite there yet.

With at-home learning, that need will be more prevalent. It will most likely grow quicker than if we didn’t have at-home learning.

What are the big barriers to further implementation?

I think it’s just both students and teachers knowing how it would work. Some of it is cost. A true chatbot that works on a website costs money. If you want something that will engage and work, that’s a funding issue as well.

I think privacy is one of the big barriers. Many districts don’t allow schools to open up Alexas and Google Homes because of the privacy of the data that’s being collected. One suggestion is to set up a separate network at schools for the use of a smart speaker. Another suggestion is to use the Alexa App on a tablet instead of an actual smart speaker such as an Echo Dot or Google Home speaker. The app can be set up to only listen when you initiate it, unlike a smart speaker that is always listening.

What impact could AI have in education with more investment and investigation?

Artificial intelligence can know what would be the best mode of delivering the content and at what pace and how deep. To be able to differentiate for every learner and know every learner’s strengths and weaknesses, that would be incredible.

I also see the capabilities, from a teacher-educator point of view, to be able to engage and monitor and track the types of lessons and strategies that can be delivered in the most effective way in the classroom. AI could help with that, even if it’s just as simple as an AI-powered search engine for a teacher in which they are able to search for content in a far deeper way than what we currently can.

Even voice experiences—let’s say in the future a student had an earbud and a microphone. What if we could ask Alexa something deeper than fact? What if we can ask Alexa, what would be the best way for me to get information on such and such? What would be the best way for me to demonstrate this information to my peers?

Are there any trends you’ve identified among the people who enroll in your course?

Any time I talk about AI, not just in the course but in a webinar or live in person, it is a gamut of people from all walks of everything. We get elementary, middle, and high school teachers. We get professors. We get people who are leading a tech company and developing a product; they’re asking, what can we do with our robots to incorporate AI?

We also get tech directors, a lot of administrators. Sometimes we’ll get a superintendent of a school district. Sometimes, it’s a person who’s not even in education who just wants to learn more about AI.


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