Artificial Intelligence’s Power, and Risks, Explored in New Report

Contributing Writer

Picture this: a small group of middle school students are learning about ancient Egypt, so they strap on a virtual reality headset and, with the assistance of an artificial intelligence tour guide, begin to explore the Pyramids of Giza. 

The teacher, also journeying to one of the oldest known civilizations via a VR headset, has assigned students to gather information to write short essays. During the tour, the AI guide fields questions from students and points them to specific artifacts and discuss what they see.

In preparing the AI-powered lesson on Egypt, the teacher beforehand would have worked with the AI program to craft a lesson plan that not only dives deep into the subject, but figures out how to keep the group moving through the virtual field trip and how to create more equal participation during the discussion. In that scenario, the AI listens, observes and interacts naturally to enhance a group learning experience, and to make a teacher’s job easier.

That classroom scenario doesn’t quite exist yet, but it’s one example of AI’s potential to transform students’ academic experiences, as described in a new report that also warns of the risks to privacy and students being treated unfairly by the technology’s algorithms. Experts in the field of K-12 and AI say the day is coming when teachers will engage with AI in a way that goes beyond simply reading metrics off a dashboard to form actual partnerships that achieve end goals for students together.

The recently released report is from the Center for Integrative Research in Computing and Learning Sciences, a hub for National Science Foundation-funded projects that focus on cyberlearning, and looks at how AI could shape K-12 education in the future, along with pressing questions centered on privacy, bias, transparency and fairness.

The report summarizes a two-day online panel that featured 22 experts in AI and learning and provides a set of recommendations for school leaders, policymakers, academics and education vendors to consider as general AI research progresses in leaps and bounds and technology is integrated into classrooms at an accelerated pace due to COVID-19.

New Applications, Lingering Questions

It also provides some concrete visions for new and expanded uses of AI in K-12, from re-imagined automated essay scoring and next-level assessments to AI used in combo with virtual reality and voice-or-gesture-based systems.

Researchers expect it to be about five to 10 years before AI can work lockstep with teachers as classroom partners in a process they have dubbed as “orchestration.”

That describes when an educator offloads time-consuming classroom tasks to AI, such as forming groups, creating lesson plans, and helping students work together to revise essays, and eventually to “monitor progress towards bigger goals.”

The report cautions, however, that “experts are concerned about the tendency to overpromise what AI can do and to overgeneralize beyond today’s limited capabilities.”

The researchers also touched on longstanding risks related to AI and education, such as privacy, security, bias, transparency, and fairness and went further to discuss design risks and how poor design practices of AI systems could unintentionally harm users. 

While the fusion of AI and K-12 is far from new, the technology’s impact in the classroom so far can be measured only as “small scale,” according to the report.

That’s set to potentially change, and researchers who participated in the CIRCLS online panel made clear that decision-makers need to make sure they don’t delay when it comes to planning and ensuring AI in K-12 is used in a manner that is “equitable, ethical, and effective and to mitigate weaknesses, risks, and potential harm.”

“We do not yet know all of the uses and applications of AI that will emerge; new innovations are appearing regularly and the most consequential applications of AI to education are likely not even invented yet,” the report says. “In a future where technology is ubiquitous in education, AI will also become pervasive in learning, teaching, and assessment. Now is the time to begin responding to the novel capabilities and challenges this will bring.”

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