Education books: AI, an unknowable upheaval in schools

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ChurchTimes

February 9, 2024

“I APPROACHED AI and the Future of Education with some trepidation. Two factors eased my way into this highly readable account, helpfully subtitled Teaching in the age of artificial intelligence. A useful, simple definition, to start with, tells me that artificial intelligence (AI) is “simulation of human intelligence by machines”. Second, even for the most technophobic among us, it is reassuring to be told that AI is not new. It already surrounds us.

Voice recognition is already a familiar example of “narrow AI”. Alexa is a familiar presence in many homes. In a similar vein, the hugely successful Abba avatar performance in London is currently grossing £1.6 million a week. A young, fit-looking Benny Andersson reassures the crowd: “This is really me, I just look very good for my age.” It looks like him, sings like him, but, at exactly the same time as he made the comment, the real 77-year-old Benny was at home in Stockholm, walking his dogs.

The dreaded word “algorithm” soon appears. The hapless Gavin Williamson’s A-level fiasco now pales into insignificance alongside Horizon and the Post Office.

It is when the author turns to “generative” AI that the book addresses the unknown future, and particularly AI’s implications for education. As the name implies, reports, dissertations, and presentations can all be generated by AI. The benefits for students are obvious — as they are for teachers, also, who are able to create customised learning materials. How long will it be before marking is a thing of the past, and personalised feedback becomes the norm? Then you would see teachers eagerly seizing these new tools.

The real strength of this timely volume relates to the new ethical questions that will arise, bearing in mind Shah’s stark warning that “AI technology was not primarily built for education.” Plagiarism and general cheating are already making many educational assignments look futile. Furthermore, as we already know to our cost, the inputted data may be biased in the first place, or inappropriate, or hopelessly flawed.

Finally, there are reflections on the coming far-reaching changes to employment — retail, transport, and manufacturing being obvious examples. On the other hand, empathy, social skills, and emotional intelligence are currently required in schools as never before. No machine is yet capable of those “soft” skills.

We don’t yet know the full ramifications of AI. But it would be harder to find a better summary of where we are at with AI, and how best to cope both with the here-and-now, and what is to come. The book is superb, and a must for all aspiring leaders.”

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