We knew it was broken. Now we might just have to fix it.
An optimistic view on how generative AI will transform education by creating “lower floors and higher ceilings”.
Most teaching and learning today at schools, and universities, primarily involves getting children and adults to memorize the manual to a proverbial game. We don’t or sometimes can’t assess whether they know how to play said game so settle for the regurgitation of information.
If a good analogy for learning is Google Maps, then the most important missing part of the system is a good GPS Tracker. The current rise of Generative AI might finally put enough pressure on better understanding what students know so we can help them get to their destination (competency).
In that regard, the panic arising about how technologies like ChatGPT will change education is the fear about a software bug or faulty feature that we should have fixed a very long time ago. We’ve known for a long time that our education systems were not teaching or testing for critical thinking. We’ve paid a lot of lip service to fixing it. Now, we might just have to.
For all its many potential applications in education, the more exciting prospects of technologies like ChatGPT may lie in what they will eradicate from our education systems first, before they allow for better pedagogies and modes of learning.
Asking better questions
First, the rise of generative AI will provide a big impetus in pushing us away from asking learners to lazily regurgitate information. It is not very interesting that ChatGPT can pass an MBA-level exam or any of our current exams for that matter. At its essence, and its current form, ChatGPT is the world’s best bullshitter. The status quo says as much about our exams as it does about advances in artificial intelligence.
It’s much more interesting to think about how generative AI will help us raise the ceiling of what we can ask our learners to do. These technologies will force us to ask better, harder, more enjoyable questions.
They will do this because these tools also already “lower the floor” for many learners - starting with software programming. As Amjad Massad, the founder of Replit, notes in a recent podcast, the rise of AI-enabled tools allows us to expect more of people. These tools can collapse the distance between idea and product. It is easier to create designs or software than ever before. These developments in turn allow us to think of expanding the bounds of project-based learning and assessment. These will be assessments where it is harder and less meaningful to cheat on.
Empowering more active learning experiences
The push for better, more carefully designed learning experiences will also raise the ceiling for what it means to be an educator moving forward. Generative AI will certainly empower teachers to do more with less - and we know they need that. Critically, these technologies will commoditize the creation of instructionist (e.g. lecture based) courses and content- especially those delivered online.
In many ways that future is already here:
Ask ChatGPT to create a syllabus for you on your topic of choice
Then ask it to create the script for the first lesson or two.
Modify and edit the script to make sure it’s accurate
Plug that into a tool like Synthesia.
Upload these “lectures” to your hosting platform of choice.
In other words, you will soon be able to generate an entire course on introductory economics with lectures in less than a couple of hours. To be clear, you will still require subject matter expertise to ensure the material is correct but the overall process has been commoditized.
There is no guarantee that this is an effective teaching tool, but I’m unaware of any lectures where that’s a guarantee. And that is the point. This is not a bad thing.
Like the shift in expectations from learners, this will enable us to think more clearly, and carefully about designing more effective (constructivist) courses. It will push us to expect opportunities for deeper and more engaged learning.
Naturally, the potential for Generative AI to create lower floors and higher ceilings isn’t guaranteed. Technology alone won’t push the needle on how learning changes in our classrooms. It never has and that won’t change no matter how much ChatGPT hallucinates.
Nevertheless, a pedagogy-first approach centered on creating opportunities for deeper and more meaningful learning can be enabled by the rise of these new technologies. We should not be worried about the demise of our current educational realities. We should be excited about a future where we can expect more of our learners and teachers.
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Thanks Nafez, an interesting article. In particular your "pedagogy-first" comment. Not all teaching leads to learning (so is it really teaching!) and words on a page don't equate to understanding, application or critical analysis. Educators do now need to be more creative with their assessment methodology and this is a good thing. Hopefully it will also lead to a greater emphasis on skills based curricula rather than knowledge based ones.
I agree that LLMs could allow teachers to have more time to devote to think about how to deepen learning. It’s also interesting to think about how LLMs might affect what forms of knowledge are more valuable. Just as Google has affected our memory (there is an article by B Sparrow on this).