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Augmenting Education: How AI Enhances the Human Touch in Teaching

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AI Enhances, But Doesn't Substitute, Instruction

During a bright spring day at Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, science educator Daniel Thompson moved through his classroom filled with sixth-grade students, reviewing their assignments and initiating conversations about the weather and water topics of the day. Assisting him was a voice-controlled artificial intelligence that could bring up apps and instructional videos on the classroom's expansive smartboards.

Upon receiving a student's inquiry, "Do any animals exist that can survive without water?" Thompson turned to the artificial intelligence for answers. Almost immediately, the class was presented with a detailed description featuring illustrations of kangaroo rats.

Origin, the voice-controlled aide developed by Thompson, is the creation of Satya Nitta, a computer scientist and the founder of Merlyn Mind. Nitta's journey began at IBM, where his initial attempts to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) system capable of directly educating students did not succeed. This project, which did not reach fruition, was initially based on IBM Watson, the AI renowned for outperforming multiple champions of the game show Jeopardy.

Despite its triumph on the game show circuit, Watson fell short when it came to educating students. Following a five-year, $100 million investment, IBM's team acknowledged their failure in 2017. Nitta remarked, "We came to understand that the technology just wasn't up to par," adding, "And it remains insufficient."

Following the debut of OpenAI's ChatGPT in November 2022, the educational scene has seen an influx of AI-powered guides and assistants. Many of these digital aids are conversational agents, utilizing extensive language models that have been developed through the analysis of vast data collections. They're designed to grasp the nuances of student questions and deliver responses in a natural, interactive manner, offering a wide array of specialized support. Such support includes creating quizzes, distilling the essence of intricate texts, guiding students through algebra problems step-by-step, and critiquing initial essay drafts, to name a few capabilities.

Certain instruments cater to specific areas of study, for instance, Writable and Photomath, whereas platforms like Socratic (developed by Google) and Khanmigo, which is a joint venture between OpenAI and Khan Academy—a nonprofit organization that provides a wide range of online educational courses—serve as more versatile educational aids.

As the number of tools increases and their functionalities continue to advance, only a small number of commentators think that education can avoid the integration of AI. Concurrently, even the most ardent supporters of technology are reluctant to claim that robots should completely take over teaching. The discussion revolves around finding the optimal combination.

Doubts regarding artificial intelligence frequently focus on its potential to enable students to take shortcuts and on the propensity of AI to generate false information in its keenness to respond to all questions. This particular issue can be reduced (though not entirely removed) by strategies such as configuring bots to derive their answers from approved educational content. Yet, a more complex problem that AI faces in the realm of impactful education, which is often overlooked, is its ability to captivate and inspire learners.

Nitta believes there is something truly significant about human interaction that enables in-person instructors to immediately identify and tackle issues such as misunderstanding and waning attention on the spot.

He aligns with other leaders in tech and learning in the view that AI should primarily serve to enhance and broaden the capabilities of educators. This concept manifests in various ways. For instance, Origin aims to simplify the process for educators to connect with their pupils and manage online resources and apps more effectively. This allows teachers to be more mobile in the classroom, engaging directly with learners, including those trying to blend into the background.

In the educational sector, efforts are being made toward realizing this goal by leveraging artificial intelligence to enhance the training of tutors for better engagement with students, or to increase the capacity of instructors to interact with more students. The ultimate aim shared by these specialists is to foster a collaboration where AI is not seen as a replacement for teachers, but as a tool to amplify the abilities of those currently in the profession.

Enhancing AI Involvement

This past academic year, Origin was test-run by numerous educators across the country, among them Thompson and three colleagues at Ron Clark Academy. This private institution in South Atlanta, which offers significant tuition subsidies for predominantly low-income students, occupies a transformed brick warehouse. Its design is reminiscent of a miniature Hogwarts, complete with a detailed clock tower and a dragon sculpture guarding the main entryway.

Navigating through the classroom, Thompson operated a slender remote control equipped with a button-triggered microphone to direct the AI software. Initially, he instructed the AI to initiate a three-minute countdown visible on the smartboard. Following this, he quickly fired a series of revision questions from an earlier lesson, like, "What leads to the formation of wind?" If the students struggled to recall specific information, Thompson would request the AI to showcase a diagram depicting how the Earth's surface's irregular warming results in airflow.

During his lecture, he unexpectedly climbed onto a student's desk to talk about the stratosphere. He incorrectly mentioned that it's the primary layer for weather phenomena, curious to see if any of the students would spot the error. Indeed, a few did, correcting him by pointing out that the troposphere is actually where weather occurs. Following that, he initiated a new topic by setting up a timer and requested the AI assistant to play a brief instructional film on marine and freshwater ecosystems. As Thompson navigated the room, he intermittently stopped the video to test the students' understanding of the material presented.

Research on student involvement, highlighted in analysis summaries published in 2018 in Social Behavior and Personality and in 2020 by the Australian Journal of Teacher Education, has underscored its significance for achieving educational goals. Although artificial intelligence possesses numerous advantages, according to Nitta, it falls short in encouraging individuals to continue with tasks that fail to capture their interest.

"He points out the glaring issue facing these chatbots: the duration of user engagement," he states. He mentions that during Watson's test phases, students disregarded its efforts to interact with them.

In a TED talk given in early 2023, shortly after the introduction of Khanmigo, Sal Khan, the originator and chief executive of Khan Academy, highlighted that among the educational strategies researched, tutoring has been one of the most effective in enhancing student achievement. However, he noted a significant challenge: the scarcity of tutors and the lack of sufficient funds to afford them, a situation exacerbated by the educational setbacks caused by the pandemic.

Kristen DiCerbo, who currently oversees learning at Khan Academy, held a position as the vice president of learning research and design at education giant Pearson back in 2016. During her tenure, Pearson collaborated with IBM on the Watson project. DiCerbo characterizes Watson as a distinct form of technology that heavily depended on pre-programmed responses, unlike the dynamic, unscripted interactions that generative AI allows with students.

Khanmigo adopts an indirect approach to addressing student inquiries, initially posing its own questions to prompt students to think about possible solutions on their own. Following this, it assists them in reaching an answer through a gradual process, offering clues and support along the way.

Despite Khan's grand ambition of providing exceptional personal tutors for every learner worldwide, DiCerbo envisions a narrower educational function for Khanmigo. She believes that when learners are tackling a skill or concept by themselves and encounter difficulties or become mentally trapped, the aim is to assist these students in overcoming their obstacles.

Throughout the last school year, around 100,000 educators and learners across the country participated in a trial of Khanmigo, identifying any misconceptions the AI might have while contributing a wealth of dialogue between students and the bot for DiCerbo and her colleagues to examine.

"She outlines that they focus on activities such as condensing information, offering clues, and fostering motivation."

The extent of Khanmigo's success in bridging the interaction divide with AI remains unclear. Khan Academy is set to publish a brief report on the interactions between students and the bot in the coming months, as stated by DiCerbo. However, the timeline for external experts to evaluate the tutor's effect on educational outcomes is expected to be more prolonged.

AI Enhances Tutoring Through Reciprocal Feedback

Beginning in 2021, Saga Education, a nonprofit organization, has been exploring the use of AI to improve tutor engagement and student motivation. In collaboration with experts from the University of Memphis and the University of Colorado, the 2023 pilot project by the Saga group involved inputting transcripts from math tutoring sessions into an AI system. This system was designed to detect instances where the tutor encouraged students to clarify their thinking, improve their responses, or engage in more profound conversations. The AI assessed the frequency of these interactions for each tutor.

Over a period of weeks, monitoring around 2,300 tutoring sessions revealed that tutors, whose mentors leveraged AI-generated feedback, substantially increased their use of techniques designed to boost student participation.

Saga is exploring the possibility of utilizing AI to provide tutors with feedback, but they are proceeding with caution. Brent Milne, the Vice President of Product Research and Development at Saga Education, emphasized the importance of maintaining a human element in the feedback process, noting that the presence of a human coach is highly beneficial.

Specialists predict an expansion in the involvement of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the educational sector, with its interactions becoming increasingly indistinguishable from human ones. Recently, OpenAI and Hume AI, a new venture, independently introduced AI technologies capable of understanding emotions by evaluating vocal tones and facial cues to discern the user's emotional state and react with appropriate "empathy." However, even with advancements in emotional intelligence, AI is expected to face challenges in effectively engaging students, as pointed out by Michael Littman, a professor of computer science at Brown University and the division director for information and intelligent systems at the National Science Foundation.

Regardless of the apparent sophistication in dialogue, he points out, students innately recognize that AI lacks genuine concern for their well-being, their expressed thoughts in their assignments, or their academic success or failure. Consequently, students are unlikely to develop any real attachment or regard for the robot's opinions. A study published in Learning and Instruction in June revealed that AI is capable of offering valuable critiques on student compositions. However, it remains uncertain if students will invest genuine effort and attention in their writing, or instead delegate the task to a robot, should AI become the main recipient of their assignments.

"Littman highlights the immense importance of the human aspect in education, noting that removing personal interactions from the learning process leads to a significant loss."

This article on artificial intelligence educators comes from The Hechinger Report, an independent, non-profit news outlet dedicated to covering disparities and advancements in education. Subscribe to the Hechinger newsletter for updates.

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