AI article

AI can be a useful tool for educators – if used wisely, ETF webinar concludes 

AI – artificial intelligence – is in the news. You can hardly look at the news scroll on your phone, listen to the radio or watch television without hearing about it. Some see it as the thin end of a dystopian wedge facing the future of humankind. Others see it as a saviour that will release humanity from low level intellectual tasks, heralding the dawn of a new age of empathetic creativity. 

Experts in AI brought together by the European Training Foundation (ETF) for a webinar organised by its Community of Innovative Educators on 12 June looked at the impact of artificial intelligence on educators’ work. Hosted by the ETF’s Fabio Nascimbeni, the two-hour webinar was attended by nearly 200 online participants – a record for the network of 1,300 registered users who share and promote innovative educational methods and solutions. With translation available in Russian and Arabic, it was a truly international event. 

The good news is that though the challenges of AI were examined – including problems with data security, plagiarism and the risk to jobs in teaching – the panel’s experts agreed that used with consideration and care, AI was a tool that could immensely enhance the role of educators, freeing them up for uniquely human interactions with their students. 

'There is no proof at all that the teaching profession is endangered [by AI],' Maria Gkountouma of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Education and Culture said.

An expert on ethical guidelines and legal frameworks, the European Union is pioneering in the area of artificial intelligence.

'Any operating system has been developed by humans and it needs human interaction to improve itself and be effective. Human mediation will always be there.'

'I honestly don’t think the teaching profession is endangered; competences are changing – no one was asked to surf the internet in the 1980s, now everyone has more or less the same competence. Teachers would need to embrace some new skills, but their role in the classroom would remain essential,' she added. 

Andrea Biancini, who teaches AI at Bocconi University and other institutions in Italy, set the scene for how AI was likely to impact the work of teachers. There is nothing new in AI, he insisted, noting that the term had been coined in 1956 at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence.

'AI can be seen from different perspectives; AI can be used as a concept to refer to artificial computer systems that are somehow capable of doing some of the tasks that usually require human intelligence. It is not the reproduction of a human being, but it does automise some human capabilities,' he said. 

The big shift over the past year has been in the development and wide availability of generative AI, such as GPT4 (ChatGPT) and other models that are able to generate human-like text and interact with real human beings. These models are getting a lot of attention as they are capable of creating new content (images, videos, newscasts) from scratch, he noted. But although these developments are causing some concerns, and the need to address inherent bias in AI – which is only as good as the data that it relies on – is evident, the potential to use AI for positive benefit in education is clear. 

'AI is boosting technology in education and being integrated into the learning system – for example by building tutoring systems, making platforms more adaptive in sustaining students during learning activities, or designing smart classrooms where activities are guided or empowered by the use of AI in different ways.'  

'It is possible to tailor all educational content to an individual’s needs… This is a very strong opportunity for teachers; educators can focus more on the human dimension of their teaching practice instead of devoting most of their time to developing content for every single student.' 

Ethical considerations still need to be addressed and AI should always be used with reference to any bias, data privacy, and trust, he added. 

'These technologies empower educators, but we must build trust and ensure that all AI is used ethically and this is recognised by students.' 

Case studies from two educators from Azerbaijan and Slovenia, demonstrated the positive use to which AI could be put in the classroom. 

Ilgar Zarbaliyev, of the New Zealand education platform Enterprise DNA, Azerbaijan, said that AI had been identified by the World Data Summit in Amsterdam as the 'third technological shift' of recent times, following the Internet and mobile phones. Although it could pose a significant threat and the 'displacement of human teachers' was not welcome, by navigating the ethical challenges it could provide a true boon to education. 

'AI has a great role in education; we can talk about the personalised learning role of education,' he said. 'AI can adapt content and deliver individual student learning; it can provide personalised learning experiences, pacing, optimising learning outcomes. Many people are already using AI without necessarily realising – for example those learning foreign languages via Duolingo.' 

'There are ethical challenges – AI algorithms are trained on existing data that can contain unwanted biases,' he said, adding that fears over a reduced role for teachers was overstated: 'We know that emotional contact and mentoring is vital in education.' 

Boshko Koloski, a PhD candidate in natural language processing at the Jožef Štefan Institute, North Macedonia, is using AI in his research and teaching. He works with students aged between 18 and 60 and said that AI is a very useful aid to teaching. 

'Teacher-to-student ratios are often greater than 20:1. It is impossible to tackle all the questions student have on the fly,' he said. 'Students often lack personalised teaching. ChatGPT can be used as an explainer.' 

AI could be prompted to give answers to questions appropriate to the age and educational level of students, Boshko said, using a page of text explaining AI that was aimed at either young children or uneducated labourers under the age of 40 as examples. It could also be a great revision tool, although problems with accuracy meant that answers AI gives should always be checked. 

Although the speakers agreed that AI was a useful tool for adoption in education, and the majority of those participating as observers expressed a keen interest in using AI, the European Commission's Maria Gkountouma stressed that guidelines drawn up by the European Commission should be observed to address issues in its use. 

Ethical considerations are central to the EU’s prioritisation of the digital transition, and guidelines for teachers, parents and the general public are available. 

The EU was also active in drawing up a legal framework to regulate AI she said, noting, among other legal and advisory measures, the recently updated Digital Competence Framework, and legislation including the pending AI Act 2021, which was the first-ever in the world to set guidelines for using AI. There are also the European Commission's Ethical guidelines on the use of AI, which are aimed at teachers but used by others, published in October 2022 after consultation with teachers across the EU, the World Bank, the OECD, UNICEF and other international organisations. 

In conclusion a survey of participants in the webinar suggested that key among needs for teachers are access to technical support to develop skills in using AI, and peer-to-peer learning or expert support. 

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