Benefits of AI are Important but Limited in Scope

Among the other questions being asked as a result of the current pandemic is, “What will the rise of artificial intelligence mean for K-12 education?” It would seem safe to assume that the rush to online learning and the adoption of new technologies will inevitably lead educators to embrace tools powered by artificial intelligence.

 

But according to Robert F. Murphy, that more optimistic vision for AI will probably be tempered for now by budget shortfalls that “may seriously delay” school districts from making those types of investments anytime soon.

 

Murphy is an independent education consultant with over two decades of research experience, including as a senior policy researcher for the international think tank RAND Corporation and as the director for evaluation research at SRI International, a scientific research center.

 

In a paper authored last year for RAND, Murphy addressed the more fundamental issues of AI that need to be considered, regarding its further adoption. Murphy cautioned that artificial intelligence is not likely to transform education as it already has other high-profile industries such as transportation, drug discovery, and health care.

 

Instead, he has argued that AI will continue to play an essential supporting role in enhancing the classroom experience, assisting teachers with second-language learning, feedback on writing drafts, early diagnosis of reading problems, and adaptive instruction for remediation.

 

How Accurate are AI Tools?

Prior to ascribing the value of AI, its accuracy needs to be determined. The accuracy of statistical AI systems is largely dependent on access to large sets of data, which could reinforce existing biases regarding gender and race. However, concerns over algorithmic bias seem to depend on the particular application, its function in the school and classroom, and the ramifications of the AI decisions for students and teachers.

 

For example, the consequences of bias regarding curriculum recommendations for teachers are relatively innocuous when compared with the outcomes for students that might disproportionately and incorrectly identify one group of students for remediation based on gender or race, while ignoring other students with identical needs.

 

Teachers Can’t be Replaced

Within the K-12 world, AI is predominantly used in adaptive instructional systems and intelligent tutoring systems that provide customized content for students related to that student’s strengths and weaknesses.

 

These AI systems and others like them provide students the opportunity to work independently at their own pace. By providing continuous feedback on performance, the student’s advancement is wholly contingent on mastering requisite skills and concepts.

 

The RAND report says, “Evidence shows that such (AI) systems can be effective in the classroom—but only when it comes to topics and skills that revolve around facts, methods, operations, and procedural skills. The systems are less able to support the learning of complex, difficult-to-assess, higher-order skills, such as critical thinking, effective communication, argumentation, and collaboration.”

 

To put it simply, AI tools can’t replace teachers, Murphy said. “The work of teachers and the act of teaching, unlike repetitive tasks on the manufacturing floor, cannot be completely automated.” But they can help teachers do more—by making it easier to backfill missing foundational knowledge and skills for students who are behind.

 

Some of the More Hidden Concerns

The accelerating push to gather more educational data is raising concerns in different quarters. Some parents and activists worry about the privacy that is being compromised. They argue that the information-gathering software is reaching way beyond the protection afforded to students under current law.

 

The RAND report also highlights issues of bias regarding statistical models that often corroborate existing racial and gender bias. “The deck is stacked.” And the lack of transparency with many software developers that are either unable or unwilling to allay public concerns regarding the decision-making process is eroding public trust.

 

“I think we need to be cautious about the blind acceptance of AI-powered decision tools when there are serious consequences for the individuals who are the object of their decision-making,” Murphy said.

 

A Sobering View

On the one hand, AI technology continues to accelerate unabated. On the other hand, in a recent interview with Education Week, Murphy said, “There is also currently little evidence to show that such (AI) tools are effective at improving educational outcomes, and the technologies must overcome significant hurdles around privacy, potential bias, and public trust.”

 

And he added, “Schools would be wise to consider those realities before embracing AI whole-hog, I would err on the side of caution. If publishers and developers aren’t willing to provide information about how decisions are made within their systems, I think that raises red flags.”

 

So what’s the verdict? While undoubtedly AI will continue to make inroads into the K-12 world of education, the pace and in what ways appear to remain open questions at this point.

 

Help Your Students Cope with the Crisis

The response to the COVID-19 Pandemic is unprecedented. Because of our unique role in children’s K-12 education including online speech therapy, we feel a responsibility to do what we can to assist schools, therapists, and students with this transition to online learning and seclusion. To ensure that our students remain engaged and supported, our therapists are providing complimentary “Support Sessions” to the country’s youth. We are also assisting schools by training their therapists for remote therapy.