The strides the world is taking, with regards to technological advancement and innovation, is making every sector of society hard at work to keep up, and the meteoric rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been standing out at the forefront of these advancements. I believe that it is within the halls and corridors of the Faculty of Education; within our classrooms, as well as within the minds of the educators that the transformative potential of AI is most palpable. The urgency to adapt is in the here and now, as I believe it is already too late to start any form of soft implementation or pilot programmes to train and upskill educators. Technology advancements are coming in like the rising tide without waiting for anyone and there are no ways of stopping or slowing down access to AI as well as the effect of AI on refining the craft of teaching.
The question that is raised in all educational sectors is, amidst this whirlwind of change, do we remain anchored to the cherished educational philosophies that have illuminated the path for countless educators over the past decades?
The short answer is a big ‘yes’.
There is absolutely no quarrel between AI in education and the historical visionaries that we cherish; beginning with thinkers like Paolo Freire, who envisioned education as not just knowledge transfer to active learners, but also as a tool of social liberation. Today, AI tools, with their ability to facilitate learner-centred, self-driven learning methods and dialogues, are breathing a new life into Freire’s ideologies, ensuring that no student query goes unanswered. Students can use A.I. tools, placing them in the driver seat of their learning, allowing them to surf and chase knowledge through whichever rabbit hole they choose, pursuing their own interests and opportunities.
John Dewey, a stalwart of experiential education, would perhaps revel in AI’s capabilities. Through AI, educators can create immersive learning experiences that mirror real-world scenarios, making the act of learning as dynamic as life itself. Dewey prescribed that the stimuli students receive should always pose some form of challenge or a problem, for them to unravel. AI is an excellent tool to create challenges that require a response that elicit further reflection and critical thinking.
Critical thought and reflection is perhaps the most vital 21st century skill that our students will need to develop for their lifelong learning journey. The analysis and evaluation of information and knowledge, in a world in which we can so easily fool ourselves with teeming misinformation (in part also due to the fantastic capabilities of AI, like generative AI and deepfakes) is crucial to a healthy democracy, which Dewey himself prescribed as the central fulcrum of all education.
The ethos championed by educational theorists like Matthew Lipman and Philip Cam, through the Philosophy for Children (P4C) methodology which emphasises critical reasoning finds a new comrade in AI, and consequently even in the subject in which I personally specialise; the teaching of Ethics. AI can help students navigate through intelligently designed challenges but more importantly it can nurture the most important aspects of P4C; the inquisitive powers of our students. Lipman prescribes the encouragement of students come up with their own method of inquiry and questions when presented with a stimulus. The subject of ethics in Malta, is and should be at the forefront of training children to be good formulators of questions, so that they may construct and discover knowledge (rather than receive it and regurgitate it) together as a community of inquiry. As part of a community, even critical thought is enhanced, due to the element of peer review and diverse thinking, that a community can offer. Artificial Intelligence models can also be trained to use the Socratic method of dialectic to interact with students, offering an opportunity for students to create a deep dive into their own conceptualisations. AI can truly nurture an environment that is conducive to deep reflection and philosophical exploration.
In relation to the above, even David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory, which revolves around a cyclical learning process, resonates harmoniously with AI’s capabilities. AI can be at the centre of every step of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, taking different roles depending on the step in the learning method. It can be the concrete, stimulating experience. It can then, elicit the reflections and observations of the students about that concrete experience. It can then gather their responses so that it can instantaneously formulate a plan for helping students to conceptualise the learning cognitively as abstract thought. The AI can then offer a platform through a simulation, in which students can experiment with the newly learnt skills and concepts and thus restarting Kolb’s experiential learning cycle again, as AI can keep the algorithm based on this cyclical method going indefinitely.
AI can even gather the data of how the students are interacting with these models, thus exposing the students’ learning styles, and fine tune its own role in different steps of the teaching methods, so that it can help students navigate all the aspects of the methodologies and help students develop their thought more holistically.
The challenge for education would be to teach these educational philosophies to AI models, before teaching it the curriculum. Basically I envisage the AI to become the most essential teaching partner to any teacher, in any classroom. The professional educator always needs to be there to fine tune the AI’s use and work in the classroom so rather than seeing AI as a possible replacement of teachers, as robotisation replaced many manual jobs, we need to look at cobotization models where the robot is cooperator with the teacher.
But putting aside educational philosophies, what about the day to day jobs that teachers have to face? Mundane tasks like grading can now be entrusted to AI, freeing educators to dive deeper into content creation, mentorship, research, professional development, and most importantly rediscover the humane and caring aspect of the teaching profession. AI’s meticulousness in data analysis ensures that potential academic hurdles are identified and addressed promptly. Moreover, with accompanying tools like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, the boundaries of a traditional classroom are stretched and even shattered, offering a realm of possibilities where students can learn by doing and virtually exiting the classrooms, while remaining in a safe environment.
However, integrating AI in education is not without its challenges. I envisage that a significant roadblock is technophobia and reluctance to change, especially in a system in which traditional rote-memorising examinations and assessments are still very much present. Many educators, especially those nurtured in traditional pedagogies, approach AI with caution.
I cannot stress enough how vital it is for educators today, to realise that we cannot expect students today to learn with the same teaching methods that we experienced ourselves over 30 years ago. We are risking to completely alienate ourselves from the technology natives today and my concern is that our educational institutions cannot remain divorced from electronic devices and the use of innovative technologies in schools for much longer, without losing an entire generation of students until we catch up.
If we expect to improve our qualities and standards in education, any educational strategies need to include a revolutionary change in the use of digital technologies and in their provision, which research shows extensively that have a profound positive effect on STEAM learning for example.
Addressing the above, needs a blend of intensive training, transparent communication and the showcasing of AI’s success stories – not only to educators and students, but also to parents and the local communities. There has to be a national outreach programme to create a national paradigm shift in our Maltese community’s attitudes towards innovative technology, with special focus on AI; presenting it as an asset rather than a threat, to gradually diminish resistance.
Within this technological discourse, the significance of teaching Ethics and Digital Wellbeing becomes paramount. In an age where AI systems can mimic human behaviour and make decisions that if implemented in education, can have consequences on our children, instilling ethical reasoning in our children is indispensable. Not only, as mentioned above, does the P4C methodology in the subject of Ethics encourage and equip students to question, but it can also offer the education in normative ethical theories, in order to equip students with the power of predictability of the ramifications of AI-driven decisions, as well as the prudential judgment that is required to moderate an AI-driven decision. Thus, ethics teachers not only need to be educators in this AI era, but also need to be ethicists, as they will also be called to reflect on the ethics of teaching ethics with AI as well as more directly, the ethics of AI itself.
Putting privacy right concerns aside, AI is already being used in countries like China to gather diagnostic data from students such as, focus and attention levels through brainwaves (through a head-worn device), stress levels, and face recognition data. This data can give information about the effectiveness of teaching methods across different times of day, inform educators about recommended breaks, and even suggest mindfulness exercises or adjustments to lesson plans and activities. The only challenge here is the privacy issues and data management issues that this system could raise. Without stringent safeguards, data breaches could erode the foundational trust in educational institutions, and simply go against our European concepts of human rights and privacy. However it is very interesting to think about how such technology could be used for the students’ benefits in this way, and even more interesting if we can create a legal framework and policy in which such technology can be developed but at the same time safeguard our children’s rights to privacy.
The horizon promises a delicate blend of tradition and innovation. A concept from a movie that I like is the engraving on the sword of the principal character (Algren played by Tom Cruise) in ‘The Last Samurai’: “I belong to the warrior in whom the old ways have joined the new.” I personally believe that this is the kind of attitude we need to embrace AI as educators: figure out how we can embrace innovation, while remaining true to our rich, historical legacies of educational philosophy. We’re pivoting from a standardized model of education to a more nuanced, personalized approach. Transformation does not have to be perceived as challenging as one may think and the maxim “change is always painful” perhaps needs to be thrown out of the window.
We are at the cusp of a technological renaissance in education and the most important aspect of this new enlightenment for educators, is to rediscover our vision and mission, and the importance of being grounded in empathy, connection, inspiration, and motivation. With the right attitude, AI’s capabilities will not just evolve education and educators, but also elevate them.