How should schools navigate the use of AI in classrooms?

How should schools navigate the use of AI in classrooms?

For those of us who were school students in the 1990s, being without the Internet or a mobile phone wouldn’t be a catastrophe. We managed just fine without them, as did every generation before us.

The bigger worry, however, is that for today’s ‘digital natives’ who have never known a time without the Internet, suggesting time away from it can elicit a sense of anxiety. Experts say this is as big a problem for parents and schools as it is for the young people themselves.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with 38 member countries, has documented a strong link between screens and internet use and declining academic outcomes. Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence shows that screen-time is negatively impacting on many aspects of child and adolescent development and may even be altering the developing brain in ways that we do not yet understand.

In its research, the OECD has noted something that many schools that have spent big on digital devices over the previous decades might find alarming – countries whose school students spend less time on screens and online get better academic outcomes in international testing.

For his part, Federal Education Minister Jason Clare has supported a ban on mobile phones in Australia’s classrooms, noting that digital devices have been shown to be a distracting, and at times harmful, influence on young people’s learning and wellbeing.

Around the same time the Minister was rallying support for these changes, ChatGPT burst onto the scene and presented education systems with a complex challenge. While this generative AI tool no doubt has the potential to be just as distracting as any other online app, it has shown to be profoundly educational for students, and an efficient way for teachers to reduce tedious administrative tasks.

A few months after trying to ban this technology from schools, education ministers began discussing the framework of a ‘National Artificial Intelligence Taskforce’ to oversee how generative AI tools could be safely and responsibly incorporated into teaching and learning.

An education game-changer

In a statement recently aired on The Project, Minister Clare said that AI, much like the Internet, and the calculator before it, “has the potential to completely change the way we teach, and the way we learn.”

The challenge for teachers and policymakers, he pointed out is “how to harness the real and palpable benefits of AI and also make sure it's not misused”.

“That's where Education Ministers around the country are focusing our attention at the moment,” he said. “At the last meeting of Education Ministers, we agreed to develop a best practice national framework to help schools grappling with this issue. AI's not going away - it's being built into everything that we use.”

Minister Clare pointed to Microsoft’s $14bn AUD investment into OpenAI, the creators of ChatGPT, as well as moves by Google and IBM to progressively roll out AI models of their own.

“The challenge for us all is not whether we use it, but how we use it, to make sure that students are prepared for a future where almost inevitably, the work they'll do, the professions they'll go into will use AI assistive technologies,” he said.

“We also need to make sure that the benefits of AI are accessible to all students, not just a fortunate few. And that's why we're focused on this, and why we're engaging with experts in this field to support this work.”

In South Australia – the only jurisdiction to not ban AI in schools – an eight-week trial in high schools is piloting an Australian-first ‘education-safe’ version of ChatGPT that has been created in conjunction with Microsoft.

“The Education Minister Blair Boyer and Department Chief Executive feel we need to teach students how to use it safely to best prepare them for the workforce after their schooling,” a spokesperson for the SA Department of Education told The Educator.

“The pilot was very well received by other state and territory education ministers when Minister Boyer discussed it at EMM and we’re looking forward to hearing the outcomes of the trial.”

The state’s government will decide whether or not to roll out the app to other schools once the trial ends and its outcomes are assessed.

Given the Federal Government’s increasing focus on generative AI, and the ability of such tools to accurately analyse student data points and help teachers better identify areas for improvement, it’s likely other states could roll out similar initiatives of their own.

So, where to from here?

Next week, UNESCO will release the findings of its 2023 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report titled "Technology in Education: A Tool on Whose Terms?".

In the lead-up to the report’s release, its authors say the findings will emphasises a need to prioritise the learner's needs, rather than digital inputs.

“[The report] underscores growing concerns around data privacy, cyberbullying, and children's wellbeing related to smartphone use,” they said, also noting that excessive screen time is known to impact negatively on young people’s mental and physical health.

An earlier report, published by the OECD in 2015, sounded similar warnings, with the organisation’s Head of Education, Andreas Schleicher stating “The reality is that technology is doing more harm than good in our schools today.”

In the OECD’s report, it was noted that countries that had invested heavily in technology had shown no signs of improvement in reading, maths or science.

The upcoming report from UNESCO will surely give Minister Clare and his State and Territory counterparts a lot to think about ahead of their next meeting.

“There is a place for technology but if it is to be brandished as something that will enhance learning outcomes, then I suggest that proponents of its use must show some evidence to substantiate such claims,” University of the Sunshine Coast (UniSC) Associate Professor of Education Michael Nagel told The Educator.

“Importantly, I am not talking about a government report about how some class somewhere seemed to do better, but rather a meta-analysis of data that would be at odds with the OECD’s findings or rebut the plethora of studies suggesting that over investment in technology does not bear the type of academic fruit promised by tech companies or ICT experts.”