‘We need to embrace change’: What principals think of the AI revolution in education

‘We need to embrace change’: What principals think of the AI revolution in education

In March, Education Ministers agreed to establish a National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Taskforce to develop a draft framework for using AI in schools.

On Friday, this framework took a big step forward when the Federal Government opened it for consultation, which will now see Taskforce representatives from each State and Territory receive crucial feedback from principals, teachers, parents, unions and other key education stakeholders.

“AI is not going away. Like the calculator or the internet, we need to learn how to grapple with this new technology. There are lots of opportunities, but there are also challenges and risks,” Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said.

“We need to make sure students use AI for good and get the marks they deserve and don’t use it to cheat, while also ensuring their privacy is protected.”

Principals recognise the need to embrace change

Pat Murphy, the Australian Government Primary Principals Association (AGPPA) president, said while any new technology or advance in society provides school staff and leaders with challenges, what school leaders recognise is the need to embrace change.

“By embracing change, staff can learn and stay abreast of what changes are coming and seize the opportunities presented by the new technologies for our students,” Murphy told The Educator.

“It is critical that as systems and schools, we put in place safeguards that protect our students and staff from unintended consequences of the technology.”

Murphy said schools and systems have found total bans to be “ineffective”, pointing out that this has only widened the existing digital divide between the have’s and the have-nots.

“Students with means have ways of accessing this technology which creates a greater digit divide for those students from less affluent backgrounds, who do not have the same level of access to the technological resources,” he said.

“AI provides Schools and Universities with a huge opportunity to reform instruction and assessment practices.”

Murphy said that with AI now being so prevalent, students will need to be taught and practice how to discern fact from fiction.

“Educational Institutions will need to broaden the array of assessments offered to students, in order to provide them with the chance to demonstrate their knowledge and capability.”

AGPPA is recommending that schools be provided with the resources so that staff can access AI.

“Systems need to embrace the technology, rather than banning it, as this only furthers the digit divide which disadvantages less affluent students.”

Increase AI awareness to reduce risks

Australia’s Catholic schools are also backing a cautious approach when it comes to the proliferation and implementation of this technology.

“Catholic Education believes AI tools for students, educators and systems, when used responsibly, potentially offer a broad range of strengths and benefits to improve education outcomes,” The National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) executive director, Jacinta Collins told The Educator.

In its submission to the Federal Government's Inquiry into AI in the Australian education system, the NCEC said “increasing awareness and understanding of AI tools across the education sector will encourage appropriate use and innovation while mitigating data, privacy and security risks.”

“Our recommendations include undertaking research into the impacts of AI on students, development of frameworks for schools and systems to evaluate and make decisions on which tools are fit for purpose, and ensuring equity of access to AI tools for students across all education sectors.”

Private schools well placed to drive change using AI

Dr Chris Duncan, CEO of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA), said independent schools have been quick to experiment with generative AI tools and test its benefits and drawbacks.

“There is definitely a recognition that generative AI has the potential to profoundly disrupt the way we are used to delivering education, and independent schools have been quick to experiment with generative AI tools and test its benefits and drawbacks,” Dr Duncan told The Educator.

A survey of AHISA members on the use of generative AI tools in their schools found the approaches schools adopt and what stage they are at in progressing their investigations vary according to a range of factors, including school size and the depth of technological and innovation expertise already embedded in the school’s executive leadership team.

“Typically, schools begin by ensuring guidelines and policies are in place and building teachers’ expertise in use of the tools before introducing the tools to students,” Dr Duncan said.

The AHISA survey found that 40% of respondents’ schools had already covered the use of generative AI tools within existing policies addressing issues such as academic integrity, assessment or data and privacy.

Forty-five per cent of respondents reported their school is in the process of developing a policy for staff, while slightly more (46%) reported their school is in the process of developing a policy for students. Some schools said they are considering the development of stand-alone policies for the use of generative AI tools in their classrooms.

For teachers, the greatest benefit reported for generative AI tools is that they save time.

“Those schools already using generative AI tools in the classroom have reported a number of positive impacts on students’ work, including improvements in the calibre of students’ work, greater grasp of concepts and gains for students with literacy difficulties,” Dr Duncan said.

“It is early days, but so far, the indicators are encouraging.”

Dr Duncan said the government’s National AI Taskforce must consider how to upskill Australia’s teacher workforce to be able to use generative AI tools for their own work as well as students’ learning.

“Unless all teachers have the opportunity to gain mastery over these tools, we risk widening equity gaps in Australian education,” he said.

“Given the concerns around information integrity and data privacy in the use of generative AI chatbots, we see a role for Australian governments to investigate the development of generative AI tools which have the potential to deliver more for both Australian students and their teachers in the longer-term.”

Dr Duncan said this includes ‘walled garden’ generative AI tools (chatbots which are trained on vetted and trusted source materials).

“When you consider the expertise within Australia’s National Education Architecture institutions – AITSL, ESA, ACARA and AERO – and the extensive resources they have already produced, Australia is well-placed to initially investigate and possibly eventually drive the development of ‘walled garden’ generative AI tools for school education.”