Opinion
Classroom Technology Opinion

How Teachers Should Approach the Age of AI

The crucial back-to-school questions around student use of artificial intelligence
By Chad Towarnicki — August 08, 2023 4 min read
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Here is a summer reading challenge to all teachers that involves “getting into a pool,” so to speak. Spend a few days of this summer immersing yourself in AI. Dive all the way in, if only to understand the new reality for every student.

The recent explosion in artificial intelligence and the subsequent AI arms race will be one of the biggest changes in the field of education since the invention of the internet. It was easier to keep a lid on that digital experience, because it existed within the confines of the computer itself. Educators were working with children in a nondigital space and could coach digital citizenship when learners dipped their toe into the waters. There were natural guidelines of what constituted research, composition, and plagiarism.

As the technological landscape continued to evolve, both children and adults began to wade into the waters of tablets, 1:1 laptop initiatives, smartphones, and smartwatches. It became more imperative for educators to hold the line and determine what the student was capable of when unsupported by tech, even though technology had come to support the learning process at nearly every step of their educational career.

Prior to COVID, it was becoming difficult to separate the child from their digital identity. Now, after students became completely dependent on technology socially and academically during pandemic school building closures, it is more difficult than ever to separate the physical child from their tech suites.

Indeed, it is often difficult to convince them that their physical interactions are more meaningful than the social media interactions. That is simply not the case for many of them. As an educator, it is hard to play the role of lifeguard as we watch a generation awash in life-altering influences and events that mostly take place on their screens.

Focusing on middle school populations is interesting because this group of students has never lived in a world without the smartphone. They were likely raised on screens, with parents on screens, only to be given their own screens well before they were developmentally ready. They are essentially “techphibians.” Tech has seeped and spilled into every aspect of their lives, and now, AI is poised to amplify that environment in unpredictable ways.

For the educator, the old task remains the same: Determine what the child’s mind is capable of without the support of technology.

The rise of AI signifies that it may no longer be possible to extricate the student from the technology. What the student is capable of doing with technology has increased tenfold, and what the student is capable of without it is quickly eroding. It is as though oil was added to the pool analogy. It is no longer a matter of taking the student out of the digital stream; they would need to be scrubbed clean of it.

AI can now automatically correct the grammar of all secondary-level writing on a laptop or phone. Should we concede grammar and let the devices fill in the gaps?

We can ask a similar question about writing in general. Every secondary student with a laptop can now produce at least A-level writing in any content area by using AI. Is it equitable to coach all students on how to maximize that technology so that everyone is “honors level”?

Should we slow down our classrooms with pen-to-paper writing prompts in service of the same old standardized tests? That’s a tough sell to the tech natives.

Should we discuss which standards are essentially obsolete because the student can now delegate so many of them to their device? Unique written content and presentations are now just a click away. The depth of knowledge for those assignments has plummeted to a zero.

What’s more, the students are usually the ones with first exposure to the new technology. By the time the adults have caught up, the next new website, app, or add-on has already spread through their feeds. I’m just a geriatric millennial trying to stay in the shallow end and curb social media use in my personal life.

It is important to point out that the educators confronting this enormous tech transition are the same that emptied their tanks during the last enormous tech transition, just three short years ago. Many of them never recovered from the toll that COVID took on staff, and many districts are still wading through morale and climate issues (not to mention staffing shortages).

It is that beleaguered population of teachers who are now on the front lines of yet another generational challenge. Not to mention that fewer younger people are getting into the education field.

This challenge is different from the pandemic, largely because it is being overlooked, despite making a larger long-term impact. Smartphones are proving far more harmful to adolescents than the vaccines and masks that were debated ad nauseum, and AI will only foster greater tech dependence. There needs to be a reframing of expectations and standards at a very fundamental level. Even if a given district wants to keep a status quo stance, it will need to consider all the ways that AI will continue to evolve as an affront to that stance.

Legend has it that when you ask ChatGPT what comes next for education, it will reply “après moi, le déluge.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2023 edition of Education Week as How Teachers Should Approach the Age of AI

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