IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Opinion: AI Needs Brakes, CBE Needs High-Tech Support

Artificial intelligence creates new ethical challenges as quickly as it does opportunities in the education space. The movement for competency-based education could use the same urgency and innovation.

Lines of code overlayed over an artificial face.
Any new technology has challenges related to costs and benefits, risks and rewards. Atomic energy. Cars. Planes. Even antibiotics. But I’m late to a new ethical challenge in the field of education created by technology, specifically artificial intelligence. And I’m sad that technology is lagging in its support of competency-based education (CBE). If you aren’t up on CBE, again I recommend the latest book on the subject, From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)creating School for Every Child, by Michael Horn, or my column from last month.

I knew that AI could create art and music, find cancers and drive cars. But I had no idea of the challenges presented by the availability of AI-driven writing software for our students and in our schools. I was dismayed to find articles listing the best AI writing programs of 2022 that featured products that also check for plagiarism! I found lists of the “best AI essay-writing software.” Digging deeper, I found articles rating AI programs that write college admissions essays!

This is just one of the latest ethical challenges created by new technology, raising huge issues for students, parents and schools. These are topics all educators should be discussing among themselves and with their students. I just don’t see them being discussed. The ethical question “Does the end justify the means?” seems very appropriate for schools to be asking their students. And students need to explore these topics from all sides and viewpoints, making this a very teachable moment.

But there is more to the “technology in education” topic. Here’s what The Hechinger Report wrote last year on the topic of bias and accuracy:

“Now, simple A.I.-driven tools like these chatbots, plagiarism-detecting software and apps to check spelling and grammar are being joined by new, more powerful — and controversial — applications that answer academic questions, grade assignments, recommend classes and even teach.

“The newest can evaluate and score applicants’ personality traits and perceived motivation, and colleges increasingly are using these tools to make admissions and financial aid decisions.

“As the presence of this technology on campus grows, so do concerns about it. In at least one case, a seemingly promising use of A.I. in admissions decisions was halted because, by using algorithms to score applicants based on historical precedence, it perpetuated bias.”

Who wins in a system where computer-generated essays are used in college admissions decision-making? Who wins when students can submit essays they didn’t write? Who wins when AI software admits students to colleges and universities?

And if those issues weren’t enough, I want to take up another crisis. The lack of high-tech support for CBE is slowing its vitally needed adoption. I want to remind readers of a very recent article highlighting the huge software gap that must be filled if we are going to improve our education system — a system where real human learning takes place. We need software that supports competency/proficiency/mastery-based learning and a whole new way of thinking about schools and education.

A recent story by the Center for Digital Education, “Aurora CEO: Competency-Based Education Needs Tech Support,” highlights an interview with Aurora Institute President and Chief Executive Officer Susan Patrick. In it, she says, “ed-tech companies getting up to speed with the emerging movement for competency-based education (CBE) is becoming a vital element to the K-12 system of the not-too-distant future.”

Supporting what I have written and spoken about for years, she is “adamant that the old one-size-fits-all model of putting every student through school at the same pace doesn’t work, and that all signs point to competency-based and personalized learning as the future of education.”

But tech companies, please listen — startups, please listen — angel investors, please listen. We need new software — really new — and we need it now. Existing software is old-school in many ways, based on time and age. I agree with Patrick that we need school software that supports “competency-based models that personalize learning for every student.” There have been improvements in some educational software and in access to educational materials, but there remains a gap — a big gap.

Please read the article, and re-read it. Patrick says, “(We need to) shift the very purpose of our education system for human flourishing, human thriving — the goals you set for graduates.”

As I have written, the Mastery Transcript Consortium is just one initiative moving away from letter grades. Patrick says that “technology needs to be applied to CBE and that school systems should have a different view of the fundamental elements of high school diplomas, transcripts and the ranking of students and schools through GPAs.” She urges meaningful credentials “with evidence of the kind of learning and skills that they have that employers and higher-ed institutions value.”

She shares my concern that we are “in need of technology to support different ways of teaching and learning that will ultimately empower students to own their education.” We need to abandon old-fashioned models of education and the software that supports it, and “[w]e’ve got to have better ways of recording student progress in terms of what they’ve demonstrated mastery on.”

We both agree that “schools and districts and even states are hungry for a technology solution that can support competency-based ed, but the field is not there yet and too many of the investments in ed tech are still going to one-size-fits-all models.” She says, “I would really love to challenge the field of ed tech to be creating more modern solutions for competency-based systems.”

And that’s how I will end. I encourage you to read her interview. While we discuss the ethical challenges of AI and education with our students, I encourage everyone to ask for software that can be used for good — to support educational approaches that have learning as the constant and are designed to help more students succeed.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.