Harnessing AI in education: A path to better teaching and learning

Harnessing AI in education: A path to better teaching and learning

There is no question that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is reshaping the educational landscape in profound ways, offering unprecedented opportunities for students, teachers, and leaders alike.

Generative AI in particular is allowing schools to not just automate tedious administrative tasks and enhance curriculum delivery but also provide real-time, personalised feedback, helping busy teachers to address individual learning needs more effectively.

In March, Education Perfect (EP) and The Educator held a Virtual Roundtable to spotlight the evolving role of AI in shaping educational practices. Moderated by EP’s Curriculum Specialist Kelly Hollis, the discussion featured several educators and leaders who spoke about the ability of AI to improve both student learning and teacher professional development.

The human element must remain at the centre of teaching

Brett Salakis, former primary school teacher and Education Ambassador for HP, emphasised the importance of a balanced approach to digital learning in the age of AI.

“Right now, we are all explorers when it comes to AI, so one of the biggest risks is listening to the grifters who say they are AI experts. AI experts are extremely small in number,” Salakis cautioned.

“If we are going to be shaping policy and practice, we need to enhance the digital teaching and learning that is going to be happening; we need to be bold, but careful.”

When it comes to assessments, rather than move immediately into talking AI and feedback and assessment, Salakis says schools need to ask what their assessment policy is.

“What do we understand assessment to be? For a long time, we’ve known what good quality assessment is, and Dylan William is a good example. But front-loading AI and then worrying about what comes next is doing things backwards,” he said.

“Politicians often see teachers as curriculum delivery mechanisms, and rightly or wrongly, part of our role has been to use of skills to deliver different types of curriculums. AI will enhance that even further, because curriculum delivery will increasingly have AI built into it.”

Salakis said that if politicians continue to define teachers as curriculum delivery mechanisms, educators will be overtaken by AI because they won’t be able to respond at the same speed as AI can.

“So, we need to look at what the role of the teacher is in today’s world. One thing we can do is to really hone in on the humanity part and relational part of teaching where we nurture children’s development,” he said.

“We also need to be stronger with our voice and hold true the actual purpose of teaching. If we know why and how we’re doing things, we can focus on humanity and let the AI do the grunt work in a much more efficient way.”

‘The importance of feedback for students cannot be overstated’

Matthew Tizard, Senior Product Manager at Education Perfect, shared his insights from nearly three decades of experience of working with AI, including a tenure at Google. He described AI's potential to automate mundane tasks and enriching teaching and learning.

“The AI spring that we’re seeing will hopefully turn into an AI summer over the next few years,” Tizard said.

“Schools are really the most interesting and impactful uses case for AI and can have the most positive impact if used wisely. So, the importance of feedback for students cannot be overstated.”

Tizard said EP has been exploring how AI can help to automate the low-level tasks of teachers but EP are now gathering more data and feedback to inform how this technology can be leveraged in a more significant way.

“Working with AI can be like training a wild animal, combined with coding…but the beast can be tamed if enough context and grounding material is given,” he said.

“Obviously, there are lots of caveats on how to do this responsibly and lots of best practice to follow, but it’s something we enjoy grappling with…to build trust and ensure it’s done in the most responsible way.”

Ian Pedler, Head of ANZ at Education Perfect, discussed the rapid adoption of AI tools in schools, emphasising their potential to expedite administrative processes and support tailored educational strategies.

“AI has taken off in a massive way over the past four-to-five months, and schools are now realising what they can do with AI,” Pedler said.

“For example, AI can help with getting teachers and principals away from admin and getting them working with students more often. Diagnostics also allows us to help students who have fallen behind more quickly and help students identify their strengths; the speed of the feedback will help us do this.”

AI can deceive, but it can also help students spot misinformation

From the practical implementation perspective, Michelle Dennis, Head of Digital at Haileybury, stressed the importance of critical engagement with AI. She noted how intentionality has been a key pillar of her school’s approach to this technology.

“Intentionality around the use of AI can empower teachers to plan and design tasks, and this helps them end up with richer tasks,” Dennis said. “

“Kids can also use AI to critique work, whether it’s their own or someone else’s. For example, we can ask them, ‘what hallucinations do you notice?’ and ‘could this have been written in a better way?’.”

Dennis explained how her school promotes six key principles on how it wants teachers to approach AI.

“One is critical thinking; so asking things like ‘is this text real?’ and ‘is this photo manipulated?’. We need students to be able to tell the difference and find those answers,” she said. “Many teachers have been doing that already, but in the age of AI it’s becoming important to scaffold those skills.”

Dennis said Haileybury has been developing its own Large Language Model (LLM) for staff alongside this approach.

“We have a safe space to experience the difficulties of dealing with AI hallucinations, and we build that into our conversations with teachers who can then help students,” she explained. “We’re seen some truly great benefits of AI and what it can do for students. I think pretending it’s not there is a big danger.”

AI: A professional development playground for teachers

Amy Ayres, Dean of Teaching and Learning at St Augustine's College, illustrated the grassroots adoption of AI within her institution. Ayres detailed a pilot program that engaged teachers in integrating AI to enhance the marking process and develop learning rubrics tailored to their classrooms' needs.

“In terms of how our school is using AI, we spent a lot of time last year observing how this technology was being used, and based on what we learned, formed a pilot group in 2023,” she said.

“This involved staff opting in to weekly meetings for a ‘show and tell’, and this grew to teachers in primary and secondary rolling out bots, marking writings tasks and creating a rubric. Because staff were driving it, they could tailor it to their class, and teachers could learn.”

When Microsoft’s AI Co-Pilot was released late last year, the school integrated this program into its teaching and learning programs.

“Teachers have loved being able to think about and collaborate on the work that they’re giving their kids,” she said. The AI has also forced them to be critical in their feedback, and throughout the year we met with heads of faculties to discuss how AI could be leveraged,” she said.

“This year in 7/8 we injected explicit instruction and practice around prompt engineering in our Digital Literacy program. Because we track and target summative tasks for digital literacy, we are looking at two tasks that will enable them to use this skill.”

Improving feedback, and academic integrity

To ensure that AI supports and not subverts students’ learning, the NSW Education Department created NSWEduChat, a “virtual tutor” built specifically for use in education and suitable for school-aged children. Unlike many commercially available AI apps, it responds to requests by posing its own questions to ensure children actually understand the concept they’re dealing with, and the calculations that were used to reach an answer.

Margaret Taborda, Assistant Principal at St Scholastica's College in Glebe Point, NSW, said her school has developed an AI detection tool that educates rather than punishes students for cheating.

“We’re not punishing students the first time around when they’re caught cheating; we want them to be responsible users of AI,” Taborda said.

“We also use our AI detection tool as part of our referencing. Our librarian has added it to our assessment tool, so kids have to be really specific about where they got their information from when they submit work.”

Taborda also noted the potential of AI to improve the way in which students receive, and respond to, feedback.

“Parents can see that we’re giving their kids a chance to look at their work and consider how they can improve,” she said.

“It’s also bringing parents on board. Our school wrote a policy about showing parents that there are safety checks when it comes to AI, and we’re maintaining this so we can ensure AI can be used responsibly moving forward.”