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Artificial intelligence in classrooms 'inevitable,' says expert

There are all kinds of great ways for this tool to help in the classroom, and it’s going to 'inevitably' transform education, expert says
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When calculators were first brought into classrooms, there was fear it would lead to cheating or have a negative impact on children’s ability to learn.

But much like calculators, Jennifer Flanagan, a youth engagement expert and president and CEO of actua, believes AI will become an important tool in education.

She said because it’s a new tool that educators, students and parents are still learning to understand, it can be scary.

“It has really taken us all by storm with the accessibility of it,” she said. “It’s been creeping into our lives in ways we might be aware of, or might not be aware of, every single day.”

And she said that as AI tools become more prevalent in the classroom, there are a lot of opportunities for it to be used really well, along with a lot of valid concerns about the technology.

“One of the big ones right now is ChatGPT,” she said. “There are excellent ways in which it can be used by both students and teachers to optimize learning, be more efficient, and be more personalized.”

While it’s new and still being experimented with, from a student perspective, Flanagan believes AI is exciting with its power and potential.

“We’re seeing it’s able to provide additional support or resourcing to students who may not be thriving in a classroom with 25 other kids,” she said. “They may need the information presented differently or have different types of questions. They might need help in specific areas of literacy and when used well, a tool like ChatGPT can act like a personal tutor.”

Despite AI being introduced to classrooms relatively recently, under a year ago, said Flanagan, teachers have been able to use it to help free up their time to focus more on students.

“It helps take some of the heavy lift out of the work they’re doing,” she said. “I’ve seen teachers use it for new lesson plans, to come up with new activities, to help provide feedback on assignments.”

Flanagan said that there are all kinds of great ways for this tool to help in the classroom and she thinks it’s going to “inevitably” transform education.

“Not only do we have this in some classrooms, but kids have it in their pockets on their phones,” she said. “This is everywhere now and there’s a lot of learning going on.”

For school boards who aren’t beginning to explore the potential of AI in classrooms, Flanagan said it’s just a matter of time until they embrace it.

“If they haven’t gone down the path of this yet, they will soon,” she said. “There’s going to be calls for how it’s regulated and how it’s being used. It can’t be ignored, there’s no way to say we’re not dealing with it or not having it in our class… it’s already there.”

There are two key pieces to why school boards have to be realistic about AI, said Flanagan. First, there must be parameters and guidelines, and second,  teachers need training on how to use it to supplement education.

“The good news is it’s super user friendly and easy to use,” she said. “If you Google how to use ChatGPT in the classroom, there’s so many good ideas and resources already. So at a school board level, it’s a question of how do we help teachers use this appropriately.”

Obviously the fear of cheating will always be in back of mind with a tool like ChatGPT, said Flanagan, who points to previous new tools that brought the same questions to the table 

“Just look at Google or the calculator,” she said. “We worried about cheating and kids not learning the same way. Like those tools, this can augment learning.”

With the ability to reduce time on tasks, Flanagan said that AI can turn teachers and students’ attention elsewhere to help them more in the long run.

“It will allow them more time to spend one-on-one with their students vs. hours and hours on new lesson plans that could be far more creative when done by ChatGPT,” she said. “The surprise of the tool for most people is how creative it can be.”

As some students are already beginning to use AI, while others haven’t ventured down the path, educating them on it will be important, too, regardless of how frequently teachers and school boards utilize it.

“First and foremost, it’s important to have a conversation about the limitations of the tool and to experiment with it as a class,” said Flanagan. “It’s really important to think critically about the information it provides you, as well as think about what you’re asking it to do.”

Then, Flanagan said, it’s up to teachers to clarify on an assignment when and where students could use ChatGPT and for students to ensure they note where they’ve used it, like a reference.

“For a while it will be messy, like all new technology, introduction is messy,” she said. “There are software programs that can be used to detect where ChatGPT has been used. It’s really going to be up to teachers and parents to have conversations with students.”

Currently the York Region District School Board is evaluating the possibility of using AI tools in the classroom.

“Including discussing the opportunities and implications of their use as a teaching and learning tool,” the school board told NewmarketToday, “we are currently exploring the possibility of providing staff and students access to AI tools in a manner that protects their privacy, security, and confidentiality.”

The York Catholic District School Board said that the Ministry of Education has indicated that there will be some direction in terms of AI use but it isn't ready yet. 

“In the meantime, the YCDSB is encouraging staff and students to explore this new tool, because it will likely be part of our future,” the school board told NewmarketToday. “Students and staff are encouraged to learn the best and most appropriate uses of AI.”