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Opinion: Tech Is Once Again Disrupting Education

Like the Internet and remote learning before it, artificial intelligence is part of a long history of technological upheavals in teaching and learning, and education leaders might benefit from lessons of the past.

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Technological revolutions have been a feature of education for decades. The 1990s witnessed the introduction of the Internet. In 2020 and 2021, the focus was on transitioning to a fully online teaching environment. Now in 2023, education leaders, technologists and teachers across the country find themselves responding once again to a new technological craze: generative AI. Like those technologies, it will have a transformative impact on the K-12 community, which will have to assess how to embrace and navigate new tools in order to maximize their potential value.

Those who were teaching in the mid to late 1990s will likely recall how quick school leaders were to acknowledge the immense potential of the commercial Internet. Many recognized it as a powerful tool for enhancing access to information and educational materials, connecting teachers from around the world and enabling them to share their knowledge and expertise. The opportunities were endless!

The introduction of the Internet in the 1990s had a significant impact on education, particularly in the K-12 sector, and generative AI has the potential to have the same impact. But while there are similarities in how school leaders perceived these innovations, there are also notable differences. Among the early adoption challenges of the Internet in schools were slow Internet speeds, limited access to technology, and a lack of knowledge and understanding among educators, students and parents about its potential or value. Concerns about online safety and the need for effective policies and practices were also raised, when solutions on how to effectively address these concerns were yet to be known or invented. Further, some embraced the technology while others blocked its use until they were better prepared or more informed. Today, it is difficult to imagine a school or teaching environment without Internet access. It has become a core resource like electricity and lights, expected to be available all the time. The Internet forever changed teaching and learning by providing access to vast amounts of information, facilitating online collaboration and creating opportunities for distance learning. It fundamentally transformed the way we acquire knowledge and learn.

Fast forward nearly three decades, and with significant advances in technology, a fresh wave of innovation is reshaping the education landscape, evoking memories of our past experiences. The sudden emergence of generative AI and various tools such as ChatGPT, Bard and Bing have captured the attention of school leaders, teachers and technologists across the country, but this time they find themselves equipped with more experiences, knowledge and expertise. These educators are witnessing the rise of new possibilities for creating personalized and adaptive learning materials and plans. However, some are focused on the potential for plagiarism and cheating, so they are raising concerns about how to use these tools without compromising individual thought, ideas and academic integrity. While many K-12 leaders see the opportunities inherent in new AI technology and are looking for ways to stay ahead of the adoption curve, others are hesitant to welcome it in through their virtual or physical school doors.

As education leaders embrace this technology, it is important that they know what it is and what it can do for their district and schools, and then how to prevent its misuse. The education sector does not always move quickly, but it should not let this moment pass by. With the introduction of generative AI, school leaders and teachers have new ways to personalize education to engage higher-performing students, create new ways to teach complex topics, and even enable new tools and educational materials that help students with particular learning challenges. Amid the steady drumbeat about digital transformation and digital content, now, for the first time, there is a technology with the potential to create specialized curriculum materials and provide real-time feedback that puts student needs and outcomes in focus.

Try prompting one of the readily available generative AI tools, “How should my school or district get started using generative AI?” Here is a short version of what it will say.

  • Educate yourself, your boards, your teachers, your students and your parents.
  • Explore areas where generative AI can add value within your school. Look for case studies and pilot opportunities you can learn from.
  • Assess the information you get from these tools and be aware that data or responses may be present as AI hallucinations or be impacted or influenced by algorithmic bias.
  • Seek out opportunities for collaboration with other educators, and work with experts interested in learning more about the future of generative AI in teaching and learning.
  • Begin with small-scale pilot projects and assess the effectiveness of generative AI, then move on and build from there. Learning from experience builds understanding and credibility with others.
  • Provide opportunities for awareness, user training and professional development with these tools and technologies.
  • Continuously monitor the impact and effectiveness of generative AI advances and those initiatives in the district or school. Be transparent in what you learn.

Adopting new tech like generative AI should be a well-informed and collaborative effort. Build a team to assess and plan for it. A good plan requires a balance between innovation, ethical considerations and educational goals to ensure meaningful and responsible integration of generative AI in the school environment.
Brian Cohen is the Vice President of the Center for Digital Government and Center Digital Education. Prior to joining the Center, Brian served for 30 years in IT leadership roles with the City of New York and most recently with the City University of New York (CUNY).