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Opinion: Students Are Falling Behind. AI to the Rescue?

A new generation of AI-enabled classroom tools might help teachers and students move beyond the old “factory model” of education, which teaches all students at the same pace, to a more personalized model.

A young student wearing headphones and looking at a smartphone, with digital icons in the foreground including a person, a pie chart, a document and a globe.
I wrote about AI in November, not knowing how soon it would become the topic of conversation and concern. Suddenly, many forms of AI chats and queries became available, along with many, many new AI-related tools and AI-embedded software such as Photoshop. Here I’ll discuss why we need AI to help all students master the material they are studying.

The good news is that we are getting there. In a blog post in March 2023, Bill Gates wrote:

“I’d been meeting with the team from OpenAI since 2016 and was impressed by their steady progress. In mid-2022, I was so excited about their work that I gave them a challenge: Train an artificial intelligence to pass an Advanced Placement biology exam. Make it capable of answering questions that it hasn’t been specifically trained for. (I picked AP Bio because the test is more than a simple regurgitation of scientific facts — it asks you to think critically about biology.) If you can do that, I said, then you’ll have made a true breakthrough.

“... They finished it in just a few months.

“… I watched in awe as they asked GPT, their AI model, 60 multiple-choice questions from the AP Bio exam — and it got 59 of them right. Then it wrote outstanding answers to six open-ended questions from the exam. We had an outside expert score the test, and GPT got a 5 — the highest possible score, and the equivalent to getting an A or A+ in a college-level biology course.

“… The development of AI is as fundamental as the creation of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone. It will change the way people work, learn, travel, get health care, and communicate with each other. Entire industries will reorient around it. Businesses will distinguish themselves by how well they use it.”

I want to focus on the potential of AI as a teacher and tutor. This is a game-changer and world-changer for many reasons. The primary reason is that it enables schools to move away from time-based systems to delivery systems that match the pace of the student, helping them through difficult topics and speeding through those easily mastered. Existing factory-model, time-based systems leave many students behind and others bored, because a system designed to fit everyone fits no one. New systems based on mastery before moving on are emerging as much better modes of learning.

An article last month by Nuno Silva, chief scientific and technology officer at the U.K.-based tech company UnifAI Technology, summarized the ways he (and now I) think that AI will transform education by personalizing educational approaches “that enhance student engagement, improve outcomes, and pave the way for a more inclusive and effective education system.” The trends he noted are:

  • Adaptive learning and personalized instruction will utilize algorithms to “deliver customized content and adjust the learning pace accordingly ... to optimize learning outcomes.”
  • Intelligent tutoring and virtual assistants are “transforming the way students receive guidance and support … and offer personalized assistance throughout the learning process.”
  • Enhanced assessments and feedback are revolutionizing “the assessment landscape by introducing more accurate and efficient evaluation methods” and providing “immediate feedback.” This helps students “identify their strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to focus their efforts on areas that require improvement” … and allows teachers to “adjust their teaching strategies accordingly.”
  • Intelligent learning analytics allow educators to “identify patterns, track learning outcomes, and tailor instruction to meet individual needs.”

Mindful of the new role of educators in this new world of education, Silva came to a most powerful and thought-provoking conclusion that makes sure the teachers are still a vital part of the picture. He said the future of education is where AI meets personalized learning.

“The integration of AI technologies in education holds the potential to revolutionize traditional classrooms, fostering greater student engagement, improving outcomes, and promoting lifelong learning,” Silva wrote. “As we embrace this future, it is essential to strike a balance between technological advancements and the human touch, ensuring that AI complements and enhances the educational experience while valuing the expertise and guidance of educators.”

Last month, Forbes contributor Ulrik Juul Christensen wrote “How AI Will Revolutionize Human Learning — But Not The Way You Think.” He listed five breakthroughs that will change how people develop knowledge and skills, and I think it would be useful for educators to see his list from a slightly different perspective. Christensen starts with the powerful thought, which I agree with, that “AI has the potential to revolutionize how humans learn through greater personalization.” His list of positive predictions included:

  1. Domain-specific, educational AI-powered models will allow for greater personalization and 100 percent proficiency.
  2. AI can be like an “infinitely patient grandmother.”
  3. AI will improve retention and the process of retraining professionals on the latest skills for their job.
  4. Educational AI will help train professionals to use more AI.
  5. Large language models such as ChatGPT will lower the cost of making content on which newer educational AI models will be trained.

Today’s educators are using AI in a number of ways to aid their work and to increase their speed and efficiency in and out of the classroom. In the near future, I will have more to say about what tools are available to teachers and schools today to improve student outcomes.

This is not a theoretical matter. We as educators have a job to do. Gallup reported in 2020 that according to a study from the Department of Education, roughly half of U.S. adults (54 percent or 130 million people), aged 16 to 74 years old, lack literacy proficiency. The recent U.S. Census tells us that the highest level of education of the age 25-and-older population includes 8.9 percent with less than a high school diploma or equivalent, and 27.9 percent with high school graduation as their highest level of school completed.

We are all thinking about how AI is changing our world and about the risks and rewards involved. AI is a powerful transformative force that affects everyone, and at the level of the discovery of fire, the wheel, electricity and the computer, to name a few. All of those changed the world — but this is different. AI challenges us to think about what it means to be human and causes us to think about and engage in discussions of technology versus humanity.

As educators and leaders, we can do better, and AI can help. We must do better and AI can help. We can redesign our schools to support educational approaches that address students where they are, not where they should be. We can design schools to help more students succeed and become proficient — and AI can help. AI can be an important tool to help transform schools, including those that are embracing a personalized, student-centered approach.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.