Generative AI emerges as a promising new tool in education

For many students, generative AI has become an indispensable resource, offering assistance in everything from drafting papers to solving maths problems.
  • Danish high schools are bringing ChatGPT into the classroom
  • Georgia school district introduces an AI-driven syllabus
  • Khan Academy launches a chatbot tutor
  • IU uses AI to provide students with personalised learning assistance
  • A Michigan university enrols AI students in classes

Characterised by its ability to create new, original content, generative AI has quickly advanced from a nascent concept to a powerful tool capable of composing text, generating realistic images, and even crafting music that can mimic human creativity with remarkable fidelity. Its impact has been profound and felt across a wide range of sectors, and education is no exception to this trend. For many students, generative AI has become an indispensable resource, a digital companion that offers assistance in everything from drafting research papers to solving complex mathematical problems. However, the swift adoption of generative AI has not been without its own set of controversies. Some educational institutions, wary of its implications, have taken a firm stance against the technology and placed bans on its use amidst fears that it could undercut the learning process. Their concern is that the ease with which generative AI can produce work may encourage an overreliance on machine-generated answers, potentially stifling the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. But is this really the right approach? In this article, we will explore the nuanced role of generative AI in education, considering its potential to enrich student learning while also addressing the ethical and practical challenges it introduces.

“My experience was that the students would use it without any kind of thought, and in that way, it becomes an obstacle to learning, and learning is the whole project here. But if we could change the way they use it so that it becomes a tool for learning, then we would have won a lot; not only in terms of giving the students a new tool for learning, but also in terms of the relationship with the students”.

Mette Mølgaard Pedersen, an English teacher at Horsens Gymnasium

Danish high schools are bringing ChatGPT into the classroom

Rather than outright banning the use of ChatGPT, some schools in Denmark have decided to go in another direction and actually encourage its use within the classroom. One of these schools is Horsens Gymnasium, where English teacher Mette Mølgaard Pedersen recently launched a two-year project that will see students in her class and other classes use the tool to complete certain assignments. Pedersen was prompted to adopt this approach after realising that some of the assignments handed in by her students were already written with the help of ChatGPT. “My experience was that the students would use it without any kind of thought, and in that way, it becomes an obstacle to learning, and learning is the whole project here”, she explains. “But if we could change the way they use it so that it becomes a tool for learning, then we would have won a lot; not only in terms of giving the students a new tool for learning, but also in terms of the relationship with the students”.

Pedersen believed that banning the tool would be the wrong move, as students would most likely continue to use it regardless of whether it was allowed or not. Instead, she decided to teach them how to use it properly. “Because if we can have the conversation with them about how to use AI, then the whole idea that they can’t talk to us about it because it’s forbidden goes away”, she adds. “And whether or not you like this and whether or not you think it’s problematic, you have to realise that it is here. And if you drive it underground, then you stop all conversation about it”. In one of her recent classes, Pedersen first asked students to analyse a short story on their own and then repeat the process using ChatGPT. The next step was to compare the two outputs, allowing students to see not only what the tool is capable of but also to identify some of its limitations. Reactions from students were mostly positive, prompting four other high schools across the country to join the project.

Georgia school district introduces an AI-driven syllabus

Similarly, a school district in Gwinnett County, Georgia, recently launched an AI-driven syllabus called Computer Science for All, which aims to introduce artificial intelligence technology into almost every class, ranging from English and art to computer science and robotics. “AI is such a popular buzzword right now, but we’ve actually been doing this for a couple of years”, says Sallie Holloway, the director of AI and computer science for the district. “For us, it’s thinking about: what do our kids need to know and do to be ready for their future? We’re not, like, always messing with a robot. But what we are doing is teaching them how to think and solve problems with these tools”.

For example, students at Seckinger High School in Buford use ChatGPT in social studies class to analyse years’ worth of traffic data and produce valuable insights that will help them to make the roads safer. According to the social studies teacher Scott Gaffney, this process would have looked a lot different in the past when generative AI technology didn’t exist yet. “That would’ve taken probably about four or five days”, he says. “The way that these kids think, they process information so fast. So, if we can give them something challenging in real time, they are very engaged with it”. Generative AI tools are also used in the school’s art class, where students are first asked to draw a sketch themselves before using an AI image generator to do the same. The assignment concludes with a discussion about how much their original design was influenced by the output generated by the machine.

“The Internet can be a pretty scary place, and it can be a pretty good place. I think that AI is the same. There could be potential bad uses and misuses, and it can be a pretty powerful learning tool”.

Kristen DiCerbo, Chief Learning Officer at Khan Academy

Khan Academy launches a chatbot tutor

The education non-profit Khan Academy recently launched an AI-powered tutor named Khanmigo, which is designed to provide students with individualised guidance in a wide range of subjects, including maths, science, and humanities. Other notable features include a writing tutor that helps students improve their writing skills and a debate tool that allows students to engage in discussions on various topics, such as student debt cancellation or AI’s impact on the labour market. Students can also choose from a wide selection of AI-powered characters to interact with, ranging from historical figures like George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., or Cleopatra to fictional characters like Hamlet and Winnie the Pooh. According to Kristen DiCerbo, Chief Learning Officer at Khan Academy, the main purpose of the tool is to engage students through conversation and to ensure that each student receives the individualised assistance they need to master the topic they are learning about, something no human teacher can provide. “The Internet can be a pretty scary place, and it can be a pretty good place. I think that AI is the same”, says DiCerbo. “There could be potential bad uses and misuses, and it can be a pretty powerful learning tool”.

Khanmigo is based on GPT-4, OpenAI’s most powerful large language model, using Khan Academy’s own learning content as the training data. To ensure that the tutor maintains an encouraging tone when interacting with students, the company implemented some new guardrails, which also keep it from simply revealing the solution to a problem when students cannot find it on their own. Besides students, the tool can also benefit teachers by providing assistance in creating lesson plans and rubrics, giving access to student chat history, and helping them identify students who have difficulties completing their assignments. At this point, Khanmigo is best suited for maths tutoring, where it excels at guiding students on how to find the solution to a problem they are presented with. It does this by offering hints and asking follow-up questions that encourage students to employ their critical thinking skills. It does, however, tend to make mistakes when performing calculations, which limits its usefulness to a certain degree. This is partly due to the fact that large language models like GPT-3 are not specifically trained to do maths but to predict the next word in a sentence, which is something that doesn’t translate as well when applied to maths concepts.

IU uses AI to provide students with personalised learning assistance

With more than 100,000 students enrolled in its courses, IU International University of Applied Sciences (IU) is the largest university in Germany. It also happens to be the first and only university in the country to provide each and every one of its students with individualised learning assistance in the form of an AI-powered learning buddy called Syntea. Originally developed to provide support for students enrolled in English-language online courses, the tool has since been expanded to cover courses offered in the German language as well. “Our AI-based learning buddy is a milestone on the road to modern higher education”, says Dr Sven Schütt, the CEO of IU. “It represents our core belief that we can fundamentally change education for the better through the use of technology and enables us to think about learning in a completely new way: students can now ask their individual questions online and receive an answer immediately — no matter where they are and when they are learning. This brings us a big step closer to our mission of making education as individual as possible”.

The university describes Syntea as a personalised learning assistant that adapts to each student’s individual needs and preferences. It also keeps track of each student’s progress and automatically adapts the learning speed to their individual needs, helping them identify their existing knowledge gaps and address them with higher precision. The current iteration of the tool offers two different functions: Question-Answering (Q&A) and Pre-Assessment. The Q&A enables students to ask questions related to the material they are learning about and receive answers within seconds, accompanied by a link to the corresponding chapter in the online script. Each answer provided by Syntea is checked by one of the teachers to verify its accuracy, who can then expand the answer by including additional information or links to further relevant content. The pre-assessment function enables students to test their knowledge on a topic of their choice, with Syntea assuming the form of a talking avatar that guides students through multiple-choice questions. At the end of the test, students can see which questions they answered correctly, giving them insight into their knowledge gaps.

A Michigan university enrols AI students in classes

While some educational institutions are using AI to provide assistance to students and teachers, one university in Michigan has decided to take this one step further by enrolling two AI students in classes. Named Ann and Fry, the AI students will participate in classes at Ferris State University alongside their human classmates, where they will listen to lectures, engage in classroom discussions, and even submit assignments. They will also have full control over the direction of their educational journey, free to choose which classes to attend, declare a major, or even earn an undergraduate degree. To help them make these decisions, both AI students have been provided with a backstory — which does not include gender or demographics-related information.

Each classroom will be equipped with computer systems and microphones to allow Ann and Fry to hear anything that goes on inside. Although they will initially be restricted to just listening, the university plans to eventually let them participate in classroom discussions as well. However, there are no plans to give them a physical body just yet. According to Kasey Thompson, associate professor at Ferris State, the purpose of the AI experiment is to give the faculty and staff a better understanding of what it feels like to be a student in this day and age, which will hopefully enable them to make higher education more accessible. “We are hoping that these learnings will impact every aspect of the university, from admissions to registration to faculty and the way they deliver their curriculum, the way they deliver their lessons to students, and also impact the way that we’re learning how students learn now, in 2024”, says Thompson.

Closing thoughts

As institutions around the world begin to explore the incorporation of artificial intelligence into their curricula, the potential for transformation within classrooms and beyond is immense. This technological infusion promises to bring about a nuanced blend of traditional educational practices and cutting-edge advancements, aiming to equip students with the skills necessary to thrive in an increasingly AI-driven world. While the benefits of AI in education are manifold, offering personalised learning experiences and access to vast amounts of information, there are also challenges and concerns that come with its adoption.

Critics point to the dangers of overreliance on technology, the risk of diminishing critical thinking skills, and the potential for AI to replace human interaction in learning environments. These concerns necessitate a careful and balanced approach to AI integration, ensuring that it serves as a valuable addition to, rather than a replacement for, the human elements of education. As this technology continues to evolve and become more sophisticated, the question remains: How can we best harness the power of AI to enhance education while preserving the irreplaceable value of human mentorship and interaction? And perhaps more importantly, how do we prepare the next generation to use AI responsibly and ethically, ensuring that it amplifies human potential rather than constrains it?

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