Future of Work

Three Reasons to Be Skeptical of Artificial Intelligence in Schools

By Alyson Klein — February 12, 2020 2 min read
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There’s a lot of optimism about the potential of artificial intelligence to remake teaching and learning these days. Exhibit A: a report released last month by McKinsey & Company arguing that AI and other education technology could shave 13 hours off teachers’ roughly 50-hour work week.

But there’s also plenty of people raising their eyebrows at those claims, and concern among teachers that AI may someday replace educators in the classroom, or simply not do nearly as good a job of educating students as, well, actual teachers.

That skepticism was fully on display at a panel, called “Artificial Intelligence in Education: Is There a Silver Lining in the Dystopian Storm Clouds?” hosted by the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers

Kentaro Toyama, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, who spoke on the panel, gave educators three reasons to be leery of AI, and technology in general:

Technology can be a distraction.

Tomaya recalled working at a digital literacy after-school program in Seattle. He said he found that, “in trying to teach students to use technology, the greatest obstacle to their learning was the technology itself.” The moment he turned his back on a student, he or she would “very quickly find the most fun they could find on the computer, computer games, and start playing them.” That shows the problem with relying too heavily on AI and technology as a teaching tool, he said. “There’s a great potential for it to be a distraction.”

Having a good teacher in the classroom is more important than having good tech.

Tomaya asked the crowd whether they would want to send their children to a school with no teachers, but strong AI, one with bad teachers and no computers, one with bad teachers and strong computers, one with good teachers and no computers, one with good teachers and some computers, or one with good teachers and many computers. No one raised their hand for a school with AI but no teachers, or one with bad teachers but strong computers.

His conclusion? “Good teachers are what matters, everything else is secondary compared to that.”

AI and technology may exacerbate gaps between needy schools and wealthier schools.

“I’m personally not worried about how the kids of wealthy, well educated people do,” Tomaya said.
The best way to think about technology is that it amplifies underlying forces.” In the case of schools, that means “pedagogical impact and capacity... Well-resourced schools will find the best ways to use technology. If you’re in a school district that is underfunded and parents are not involved it doesn’t make a difference how good the technology is, it will not turn that situation around,” he added.

So when should schools embrace AI? Only when the basics are in place, teachers want it, and there’s good evidence that the technology has educational value, Tomaya said.

Other panelists, including Natalie Milman, a professor of educational technology at George Washington University, brought up other concerns about AI, including the fact that the applications and programs powered by the technology collect tons of data on students and it’s unclear how it’s being used. What’s more, AI applications have notorious bias problems. Want more? Check out this AI explainer.

And for another perspective on AI in the classroom, read this piece, Teachers, the Robots Are Coming. And That’s Not a Bad Thing.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.