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Why We Shouldn't Fear AI in Education (and How to Use It Effectively)

Facing resistance to new technologies in the educational process is nothing new, and AI is no exception. Yet, this powerful tool is set to overcome these challenges and revolutionize education, preparing students and professionals for a future of unparalleled efficiency and personalized learning.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

Key Takeaways

  • AI's transformative potential in education requires proactive management and an open mind to leverage its capabilities while addressing its challenges.

  • AI literacy should be viewed as a fundamental skill that must be learned. Teaching and implementing AI literacy at all levels can make the learning process exponentially more efficient and powerful.

  • Successful integration of AI in education hinges on cooperation and collaboration.

Much like a precocious but uncontrollable student, AI is stirring up shock waves of controversy wherever it goes, regardless of the industry, the field, or the application. That's especially true when it's applied in education, where the stakes are much higher given the fundamental way we all relate to the topic. Whether it's our own education, that of our employees and children, or the educational standards we choose for the community at large, we all have high standards for teachers, educators, and the curriculum they use — and there's no doubt that AI is a major disruptor in this area.

The emergence of AI and its impact on the educational system needs to be proactively managed. Educators themselves acknowledge that some elements of the system we've all built together and the best practices that come with it are often outdated and anachronistic, and there's no better tool than AI when it comes to changing and improving those best practices. In many ways, that's exactly what it was designed to do.

To succeed, though, we all have to have an open mind when it comes to the capabilities, potential, and possible pitfalls of AI. And an open mind just happens to be one of the fundamental tenets of outstanding education, right? AI must be viewed as a useful tool to improve the education system at all levels, and it has to be used thoughtfully and responsibly to get the best results, so let's look at one of the most pivotal keys to doing that — AI literacy.

We all have a personal education technology journey

The most common thread that unites almost all of us in our journey through the education system is that we all have technology touchstones. To illustrate, I'll use my own personal "EdTech" journey, which was unusual, to say the least.

I grew up in the USSR, so my education was seriously different. Believe it or not, not only were calculators not allowed, but we had to use an abacus. No other choice was suggested or provided; the methodology was strictly monochromatic.

Technologically speaking, there are several useful U.S. parallels. In America, educators and parents were terrified when Texas Instruments first introduced powerful calculators to the public at large in the early 1970s.

Those concerns proved to be unfounded, of course. Calculators became incredibly useful tools that allowed talented students to advance to upper-level math skills at a much faster rate, and that speed probably helped usher in the era of the personal computer — which was just as terrifying initially.

Once educators and parents started to see PCs as potentially powerful learning tools, though, they quickly got over their fear, and computers became common. That same fear occurred when tablets and smartphones made their way into classrooms, and now it's a big part of the initial reaction to today's AI.

Many of these fears are unfounded, although there are many other concerns about critical thinking, ethics, and many other topics that are definitely genuine.

Here are a couple of examples to illustrate a couple of those unfounded fears.

Using AI to foster critical thinking and creativity in education

It's easy to talk about using AI to spur critical thinking and creativity in the learning process, but talk is just that, so let's walk the walk with a couple of simple, hypothetical examples that show how educators can nurture independent thinking and problem-solving skills.

Start with a simple essay. The fact that students can easily use AI to write essays has caused all kinds of hand-wringing because it allows them to "cheat." Students will find a way to use AI to do this, but that's a loaded word with all kinds of negative implications, so let's flip the concept around.

What if students were presented with an AI-generated essay and then asked to pick it apart and improve it, or write a slightly different version where they choose a different viewpoint or perspective? Suddenly, the use of AI becomes an exercise in critical thinking, which is exactly what education is supposed to be about.

Now let's turn to the math side of the AI equation. For this example, we'll go with basic geometry, which requires spatial skills that include visualization, image manipulation, and the ability to solve problems in three dimensions.

AI happens to be a brilliant tool to help with this process. It can assist students as they generate, understand, and manipulate 3D images, and AI can also help them solve geometry and physics problems as students are taught how to ask questions and prompt the technology effectively. This is a fundamental skill that becomes even more vital as advanced concepts are introduced, and like that old TI calculator, it can help speed up the learning process exponentially.

Critical thinking, complexity and AI literacy as a fundamental skill

To some extent, these two examples oversimplify the complexity that comes part and parcel with using AI as a critical thinking tool in the educational process at multiple levels, from middle school to professional development for senior executives. Using AI is inherently a multifaceted exercise — it makes mistakes, and it often comes with biases and limitations — just like people. The way people communicate with AI tools and critically evaluate the results they produce is fast becoming one of today's most important skills.

How should we become better at AI and more accepting of the results it produces? The process starts with viewing AI literacy as a fundamental skill that must be learned, and that learning demands curiosity, adaptability, and a relentless approach to improvement.

It also demands that educators, teachers, and learners all recognize the disruptive power of AI. Sudden change usually isn't easy, and that's especially true with AI. In many ways, we're all on the same level when it comes to learning about AI literacy as an essential skill.

Preparing for the age of AI also means multiple, fundamental changes in our current educational system as we know it, and the complexity that comes with those changes won't be a comfortable process for many of us.

The payoff, though, is potentially huge. Teaching and implementing AI literacy at all levels can make the learning process exponentially more efficient and powerful, regardless of what's being taught and what the learning goals are. AI literacy is the first step to providing education that's personalized to the needs of individuals, based on their strengths and weaknesses. This kind of customized learning experience will also increase the level of engagement and motivation exponentially.

AI literacy requires collaboration and cooperation to improve education

I often teach AI literacy workshops and provide AI keynote presentations to organizational leaders in many industries in multiple settings, and one of the concepts I typically stress the most is the need for cooperation and collaboration. In educational AI implementations, that means that all of us, from corporate leaders to educators and parents, have to understand that AI will free up our time and increase our productivity tremendously, not just add layers of complexity that require more resources and constant attention.

Developing a strategy and delivering impactful AI literacy education is the first step that most organizations need to take now. Nearly all of us need this skill now to adapt, learn, and grow, and we must prepare for the opportunities and challenges that come with an AI-enabled future. The urgency of this need can't be overemphasized, and the overall message is clear: Act quickly to take control of your future and develop AI skills, or risk falling behind those who do.

This article originally appeared on on June 11, 2024


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