How to Make Teachers Informed Consumers of Artificial Intelligence

Staff Writer

New Orleans — Artificial intelligence’s place in schools may be poised to grow, but school districts and companies have a long way to go before teachers buy into the concept.  

At a session on the future of AI in school districts, held at the ISTE conference this week, a panel of leaders discussed its potential to shape classroom experiences and the many unresolved questions associated with the technology.

The mention of AI can intimidate teachers as it’s so often associated with complex code and sophisticated robotics. But AI is already a part of daily life – in the way our phones recommend content to us or the ways that our smart home technology responds to our requests. 

When AI is made relatable, that’s when teachers buy into it, opening doors for successful implementation in the classroom, panelists said. 

“AI sounds so exotic right now, but it wasn’t that long ago that even computer science in classrooms was blowing our minds,” said Joseph South, chief learning officer for ISTE. South is a former director of the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education. 

It doesn’t matter how much we do out here. If the teacher doesn’t believe in what you’re bringing to the table, it will not be successful.Nneka McGee, South San Antonio Independent School District

The first step in getting educators comfortable with AI is to provide them the support to understand it, said Nancye Blair Black,  ISTE’s AI Explorations project lead, who moderated the panel. That kind of support needs to come from many sources, from federal officials down to the state level and individual districts. 

“We need to be talking about, ‘What is AI?’ and it needs to be explained,” she said. “A lot of people think AI is magic, but we just need to understand these tools and their limitations and do more research to get people on board.” 

With the use of machine learning, AI technologies can adapt to individual students’ needs in real-time, tracking their progress and providing immediate feedback and data to teachers as well.  

In instances where a student may be rushing through answering questions, AI technology can pick up on that and flag the student to slow down, the speakers said. This can provide a level of individual attention that can’t be achieved by a teacher who’s expected to be looking over every student’s shoulder simultaneously. 

Others see reasons to be wary of AI’s potential impact on teaching and learning. Many ed-tech advocates and academic researchers have raised serious concerns that the technology could have a negative impact on students. 

One longstanding worry is that the data AI systems rely on can be inaccurate or even discriminatory, and that the algorithms put into AI programs make faulty assumptions about students and their educational interests and potential. 

For instance, if AI is used to influence decisions about which lessons or academic programs students have access to, it could end up scuttling students’ opportunities, rather than enhancing them. 

Nneka McGee, executive director for learning and innovation for the South San Antonio ISD, mentioned in the ISTE panel that a lot more research still has to be done on AI, regarding opportunity, data, and ethics. 

“Some districts that are more affluent will have more funding, so how do we provide opportunities for all students?” she said.

“We also need to look into the amount of data that is needed and collected for AI to run effectively. Your school will probably need a data-sharing agreement with the companies you work with.” 

Not Just Piling On Teachers 

A lot of research needs to be done on AI’s data security and accessibility, as well as how to best integrate such technologies across the curriculum — not just in STEM-focused courses.  

It’s important to start getting educators familiar with the AI and how it works, panelists said, because when used effectively, AI can increase student engagement in the classroom, and give teachers more time to customize lessons to individual student needs. 

As AI picks up momentum within the education sphere, the speakers said that teachers need to start by learning the fundamentals of the technology and how it can be used in their classrooms. But a big share of the responsibility also falls on company officials developing new AI products, Black said.  

When asked about advice for ed-tech organizations that are looking to expand into AI capabilities, Black emphasized the need for user-friendliness and an interface that can be seamlessly assimilated into existing curriculum and standards. 

“Hand [teachers] something they can use right away, not just another thing to pile on what they already have,” she said.  

McGee, of the South San Antonio ISD, urges companies to include teachers in every part of the process when it comes to pioneering AI. 

“Involve teachers because they’re on the front lines; they’re the first ones who see our students,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how much we do out here. If the teacher doesn’t believe in what you’re bringing to the table, it will not be successful.”

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Photo Credit: International Society for Technology in Education

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