Artificial Intelligence, advantage or danger in the educational field?

How can technology, and in particular Artificial Intelligence, be used to improve teaching processes and enhance education? What are the challenges and advantages for teachers and students? To answer these questions Omnes interviewed Rushton Huxley, founder of the organization "Next Vista for Learning".

Gonzalo Meza-August 16, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes
Artificial intelligence

(Unsplash / Andy Kelly)

The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) marks a milestone in computing and society. The remarkable progress made in this field will have an increasingly profound impact on all areas of human activity, political, economic and social. Pope Francis has pointed out that it is necessary to be vigilant that a logic of violence does not take root in the use of AI. That is why the theme for the next World Day of Peace, January 1, 2024, is "Artificial Intelligences and Peace."

In this regard, the Dicastery for Human and Integral Development notes that the Holy Father asks to establish a dialogue to learn about the potential and risks of AI. The Pontiff exhorts to guide the use of AI in a responsible way and that it be at the service of humanity. "The guardianship of the dignity of the person and care for human fraternity are indispensable conditions for technological development to contribute to the promotion of justice and peace in the world", the Dicastery indicates.

One of the fields with enormous potential is the use of AI in the service of education. The tools derived from AI have the capacity and potential to change for better (or worse) the way we learn. How to use technology and in particular Artificial Intelligence to improve teaching processes and enhance education? What are the challenges and advantages for teachers and students?

To answer these questions, Omnes interviewed Rushton Huxley, founder of the organization "Next Vista for Learning"and teacher of "Creative Solutions for the Global Good" and "Advanced Solutions for the Global Good" at Junipero Serra Catholic High School in San Mateo California. Huxley was the keynote speaker at the C3 Conference for Global Communication offered by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Aug. 2-4 to train Catholic school faculty and staff on the potential of AI in Catholic educational institutions. 

Could you tell us a little about your work and the organization you founded "Next Vista Learning"? 

- I am the founder and executive director of Next Vista Learning, which I have been running for 18 years. The organization has a website that is basically a library of videos made by and for teachers and students around the world on creative approaches to teaching and learning. I'm also the director of innovation at Junipero Serra Institute in San Mateo, California. And I teach there with another teacher.

Why was Next Vista Learning created? 

- In 2005 I noticed that many children were having trouble learning some subjects in school. I knew that, somewhere, there was a teacher who had a smarter or more creative way to explain it. So I decided to create a space where those clever and short explanations were freely available to children. Over time, videos were also added to the library where the children themselves explain some topics and demonstrate how they learned them, sharing ideas on how to learn. We already have about 2,800 videos on the website. They cover various topics from learning English to community service. There is different content in this space.

Do you think artificial intelligence will mark a before and after in education?

- Yes. I have been in the world of educational technology for a long time and in recent years many tools have emerged that give you the ability to create your own digital media and the ability to collaborate in teams, for example, with "Google Workspace". Today it is possible to show maps to students through virtual reality. Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), such as GPT chat, or "Google Bard" challenges us in many ways. One of those items is to think about whether in teaching we have been asking students to formulate their questions and answer them correctly. For example, if we want them to learn to write, we may ask them to write a very elaborate text, with precise indications. In that case what we should do is teach them to think about what kind of things there should be before generating the writing. Then evaluate it and finally complement it. It is very important that children learn to write, but there are new ways to do it thanks to the tools we have at our disposal.

From an educational perspective, what are the advantages and disadvantages of artificial intelligence applications?

- For me, the hope of this is that people think very differently about their own possibilities. The biggest advantage for a teacher is that they save time. Because you can tell the application, "Write a syllabus for the class on this topic." The teacher takes that information and uses it in class. The 80 % of the work is already done. Or for example if we ask the AI for ideas to work on the topic of the civil rights struggle in the United States. The app is probably going to tell you to ask students to read Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail". Or ask the AI, "give me 10 questions for students about that argument." With this technology you get what's useful in a matter of seconds and that will allow you as a teacher to be more creative in deciding how to teach or improve your class.

In the case of AI and students there are many ways they can tap into its potential. For example if they write an essay and want to improve it, they can put it into the AI application and ask it for ideas to refine it. Then they can get feedback. This is obtained not because the AI is thinking like a human, but because it can generate writing that is consistent with the question you ask it, based on the vast amount of information it has available. As another example, a student might ask the application, "Give a one-page summary of this topic. Why choose that topic? So that, the next day, that student will go to class and know what the professor is going to present and thus be able to contribute to the class. They are not going to be experts, but when the professor starts teaching the subject they are going to understand it better. And if they have a hard time, they could ask the AI to generate a summary of the same topic using simple terminology in plain English (for English-speaking students). Another example. For English (or language) learners they might ask the AI to generate a list of vocabulary related to some topic. What are learners not going to find in an AI? If they ask it to describe a city like Los Angeles or New York, the AI will do it. But if you ask it for information about the life of your granny who lives in the city of Coalinga, California, it probably won't produce results.

One of the risks of AI is dishonesty or cheating in the classroom, i.e. students copying and pasting a text that is not theirs. This is an extremely sensitive behavior that in American universities carries very serious penalties including expulsion. How to prevent it?

- In that sense it is a risk. If we don't talk to students about the really good, honest and amazing things about how they can use this technology, they are effectively going to see it simply as a tool for cheating. The question we have to ask ourselves is "are we creating the factors to make students more likely to cheat?" The skills are possessed because they have been practiced and improved. On the academic side, the simpler the instructions we give our students, the easier they can do it. AI allows us to challenge students to think more complexly about the world around them, about the validity of sources, about their ability to evaluate the quality of a well-written text with grammar and spelling used correctly. But for a student to think with such a schema, he or she has to have knowledge of grammar and spelling to then recognize and evaluate. 

To get them to that point, it's important to show them life stories or experiences where they appreciate how creative and innovative approaches can be helpful to others and make a difference in a community. "Can I do something that makes a difference in my community?" Even if it's something small, that builds confidence. The teacher's task is to enable the student to know that there is a space where they can do something very interesting and academically meaningful. This involves making changes in the way teachers work. A lot of things come from very simple changes. I wrote a book called "Making Your Teaching Something Special." It is based on the premise that little things done in quantity and quality make you a better teacher. For example, something that happens in every classroom is that the students keep yelling and seem to be uncontrollable. The teacher has to find ways to get them to shut up. He or she can yell "shut up" several times in a loud voice; but maybe that yelling reminds a child of the yelling he or she hears at home and results in a bad cognitive association. But if the teacher changes the strategy and instead of yelling, gets a farm bell (I'm from Texas and we use those bells a lot) and smiles at them to tell them to shut up, the students will most likely begin to associate the farm bell noise with silence. 

Going back to generative AI, there are little things you can use to be a better teacher. There are many things we can do to make our work more effective and satisfying on a personal and professional level.

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