First in a series of three articles on artificial intelligence in education
By Dr. Connor Oswald
Open AI’s ChatGPT, Google’s Bard, and Microsoft’s Copilot burst onto the web early in 2023, the culmination of computer science’s goal of creating intelligence from silicon chips and electricity. As the initial fervor of “talking” to the computer to reasonably accurate Large Language Models wore down, experts warned of the accelerating time table of losing control of these machines and how wary we should be. Educators immediately saw both concern and promise in these new-fangled tools. This blog will briefly address the history of EdTech and the future of AI tools in education as well as possible impacts on the economy.
History of EdTech
One of the first uses of computers in education was in the early 1960s, when a program called Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (PLATO) was developed at the University of Illinois. PLATO was a computer-based learning system that allowed students to interact with the material in a variety of ways, including through text, graphics, and audio. PLATO was a success, and it was used by millions of students around the world. Courses were taught in a range of subjects, including Latin, chemistry, education, music, Esperanto, and primary mathematics. This allowed college students pre-internet access to resources outside of class hours on a university library computer system. As time would show, PLATO was a precursor to the massive open online course (MOOC), and the demand to learn would continue well into the new century.
Breakthrough of Personal Computers in EdTech
The computer or smartphone you're reading this article on is 250,000 times more powerful (in terms of instructions per second) than the computer that controlled the Apollo missions to the moon. Other supercomputers of the 1960s, like the CDC 6600 that filled entire rooms, could perform 3 million instructions per second (MIPS), whereas the iPhone 13, has a processing speed of around 5 trillion operations per second (TOPS) for specific tasks like AI inference. As the price of computer components dropped making the affordability of personalized computers inevitable, the breakthrough of personal computers in EdTech has had a profound impact on the way education is delivered and received. Personal computers have made it possible for students to access a wealth of educational resources from anywhere in the world. They have also made it possible for teachers to create more engaging and interactive learning experiences. Personal computers have helped to individualize education, allowing students to learn at their own pace and in their own way.
Expansion of EdTech through Covid
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the expansion of EdTech in a number of ways. First, the need to move education online has led to a surge in demand for EdTech products and services. Second, the pandemic has highlighted the need for more personalized and engaging learning experiences, which EdTech can provide. Third, the pandemic has made it easier for EdTech companies to reach a global audience. As a result of these factors, the EdTech market is expected to grow significantly in the coming years.
EdTech has expanded during the pandemic in a few specific ways:
- Online learning platforms have seen a surge in enrollment. For example, Coursera reported a 400% increase in enrollment in March 2020 compared to the same month in 2019.
- EdTech companies have developed new products and services to meet the needs of students and teachers. For example, Google launched a new suite of educational tools called Google Classroom, and Khan Academy released a new app for students with special needs.
The expansion of EdTech has the potential to improve education for students around the world. Yet, some problems remain a technical challenge.
Educational Data Standards and Data Silos:
District Data is housed in multiple data systems and go by many different names but include:
- Learning Management Systems: To house student learning/instructional data
- Student Information Systems: include student profiles
- Assessments Software: For reporting state mandated assessment results
- Enterprise Resource Planning Software: to manage data around facilities, finance, and reporting
- Transportation: Includes information on student transportation and routes
- Human Resources: Keeps data on faculty, staff, and administration across districts or schools.
The complexity of integrating these many systems in any school district leads to the two concepts of (1) educational data standards and (2) data silos in the field of education. Educational Data Standards are a set of rules that govern how educational data is collected, stored, and shared. Data Silos are isolated collections of data that are not easily shared with other systems.
Educational data standards are important because they help to ensure that educational data is accurate, reliable, and consistent. This is important for a number of reasons, including:
- It allows educators to track student progress over time.
- It helps educators identify areas where students need additional support.
- It allows educators to compare student performance across different schools and districts.
Data Silos are a problem because they make it difficult to share data between different systems. This can make it difficult for educators to get a complete picture of student performance. It can also make it difficult for educators to use data to improve instruction.
There are a number of ways to address the problem of data silos. One way is to develop common data models and data exchange standards. This would make it easier for different systems to share data. Another way is to create data warehouses or data lakes. These are centralized repositories for educational data that can be accessed by different systems. One of these data standards is known as Ed-fi. Texas has pursued this option through the development of the “Texas Education Exchange,” but even closer to home, the North East Florida Educational Consortium (a cooperative of 15 rural districts representing 75,000 students across North Florida) have provided services to reduce the laborious effort of writing third party integrations.
Progress in this field should accelerate as a central data standard becomes dominant in the EdTech space, allowing educators to use tools, both instructional and analytical, to jumpstart student learning with immediate differentiation.
A new wave of EdTech: Large Language Models, The Writers Strike, Cheating
Over the summer of 2023, the second longest labor stoppage in Writers Guild of America history resulted, in combination with the concurrent SAG-AFTRA Strike, in 45,000 lost jobs and over $6.5 billion in damages to the economy. The writers sought payment in the form of residuals as well as protection from the encroachment of Large Language Models (ChatGPT, Bard, Copilot) from writing complete scripts, and with movies like these getting green-lit, it isn’t a far-fetched concern.
Writers aren’t the only one’s concerned about the ability of these tools to write semi-coherent blurbs. An analysis of teachers on X.com by University of Michigan and Maryland researchers reported that Twitter users generally expressed a positive attitude toward using ChatGPT, their concerns converged into five categories: academic integrity, impact on learning outcomes and skill development, limitation of capabilities, policy and social concerns, and workforce challenges.
Since then, AI has been used in education in a variety of ways, including for tutoring, assessment, and personalized learning. AI is also being used to develop new educational technologies, such as virtual reality and augmented reality. In December of 2023, Google’s Gemini AI was introduced as a tool that could visualize, respond, and adapt in real time to a user’s request, a real life “J.A.R.V.I.S.”(Marvel’s Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) AI). As advertised it was heavily criticized for editing, indicating that it has yet to advance to immediate response. However, it does show the direction that the company is headed.
AI has the potential to revolutionize education and the economy, it is inevitably going to have a major impact on the way we learn in the future. By the time you are reading this, there are likely going to be even more advances in the field, so be sure to keep an eye on AI.
Coming Next: "How AI can impact the workforce at all levels"
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