AI Is Reshaping Education. How Should Educators Respond?

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Since the mid-1900s, technological inventions have drastically reshaped modern life. With the release of any technological advancement that shakes things up locally and globally, public reactions typically range between complete support of new phenomena and extreme opposition to the changes.

So it is with artificial intelligence (AI) today. Clearly, AI has the power to reshape the future of education. The question is, how should educators respond?

The case of artificial intelligence in education is one that requires solid evaluation and a studied response. This response requires an understanding of the AI-powered tools available online, and the nature of the information they give academics and students access to. The information available via conversational artificial intelligence tools, or “chatbots,” and the services these tools can provide have both positive and negative impacts for users.

Chatbots come in multiple forms and on various websites. Apps like ChatGPT, ChatSonic, and Bloom provide services that range from composing professional email responses to writing entire research papers and generating code for programming assignments. As astonishing as these apps can be, people were not expecting such tools and services to be available to the public, and educators and employers share common concerns regarding issues like work integrity, plagiarism, and simply losing the power to evaluate job candidates based on their true capabilities. 

Shifts in Educational Methodology

The introduction of AI-powered chatbots is demonstrating a shift in research similar to the one seen in the late 1990s when Google Search came out. Before the birth of the Internet, people relied primarily on print materials found in libraries or archives for their information and research needs. As information technology developed, however, people uploaded more of their research, publications, and all sorts of written information onto online platforms.

The success of Google was conditional on one main thing: the availability of information online. That is the exact same factor that will allow conversational artificial intelligence tools to become more widespread.

Google and earlier search engines helped people navigate this vast and growing repository of online information. However, in the late ’90s, not all schools and workplaces required the Internet for their daily work, and thus Google did not prompt the same level of fear that AI causes today.

Nevertheless, the digital revolution has transformed education and research entirely, with information in written formats, as well as videos, news articles, maps and more found online. Google became a primary means for people to access this information. Furthermore, Google is not limited to a single language, or to the world’s most used languages. On the contrary, it allows people from all over the world to search online for whatever information they desire, covering all sorts of topics. They no longer need to visit libraries to obtain information.

The success and widespread use of Google was conditional on one main thing, however, and that is the availability of information online, and that is the exact same factor that will allow conversational artificial intelligence tools to become more widespread.

Today, the Internet and search engines are used in all sorts of jobs on a daily basis. Schools that teach students as young as 5 or 6 years old have introduced those tools for students to expand their research knowledge and their access to information as a whole. Therefore, is it likely for artificial intelligence websites face the same success and dependence in the coming years? The answer would be an inevitable yes.

The Good, the Bad, the Reality

The debate regarding the use of artificial intelligence in more areas of human life has been on the rise in the past few years. Points of view range from strongly supporting to completely opposing the notion.

In a 2018 report, “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humans,” the Pew Research Center asked experts in a number of fields, including education, whether artificial intelligence would make people better off over the next decade. The general consensus among the educators Pew canvassed was supportive of AI’s potential to bring about a phenomenal shift in education.

Several education experts pointed out that AI will allow for greater customisation of education and training to match the needs of a wider scope of individuals, as well as diversifying knowledge approaches and resources. Others supported using AI to help deliver education to “remote and underserved areas,” while also expressing concern that control might be “consolidated in the hands of few that seek to exploit people, nature and technology for their own gain.” (For more on the views expressed by educators in the Pew report, see an article by Dian Schaffhauser, “Experts Debate Merits of AI in Education,” in Campus Technology.)

Education experts canvassed by the Pew Research Center welcomed AI in their sector for its potential to customise education and training to individual needs, and to help deliver education to remote and underserved areas.

Similarly, Unesco has noted that AI in education could be a tool for addressing inequalities in access to knowledge and research around the world. At the same time, it also acknowledges the potential risks and challenges. In its mandate, Unesco calls for a “human-centred approach to AI” that ensures that AI does not widen existing technological divides within and between countries.

Although there are many experts calling for the quick implementation of AI in the education sector, many others are still speculating about its effects. As AI-powered chatbots are relatively new and still under development, some educators say that the information these tools generate lacks quality. They also worry that students could become dependent on AI apps without learning to articulate their own thoughts and, worse, could use the technology to cheat.

Despite such lingering concerns, however, the incorporation of AI in the future of education has become unavoidable.

First Responses vs. Long-Term Impact

Why would the use of artificial intelligence applications pose a threat or a source of fear for institutions? One reason is that unlike Google and other search engines, AI chatbots do not provide users with information that they can evaluate and use. Instead, these tools do a human-like thinking and accumulation of information for their users depending on their requests.

The first academic responses to AI-powered chatbots were all responses of panic. Educators and employers expressed their shock upon discovering what those websites could do. However, one must understand what those concerns are exactly to be able to analyse the future of AI in education.

Ninety percent of articles found online addressing the use of AI tools such as ChatGpt, ChatSonic, or Bloom claim that the research these apps produce is mediocre, non-inclusive or non-argumentative. Furthermore, some critics say AI tools have the potential to de-skill humans, whether they are students in schools and universities, or employees who rely heavily on those apps for their day-to-day communications.

Although these claims seem valid as a first response, one must weigh them against two aspects, which are the reality on ground and the positive impacts that AI tools can have on people.

Will Artificial Intelligence Create New Intelligence?

The reality is that AI-powered chatbots do not create information; on the contrary, they locate and organize information based on what is available online. Therefore, the quality of the work will always be relative to what AI tools can find and will not have the potential to replace an argument, create a new theory, or use primary resources.

Those limitations highlight two challenges facing the use of AI tools to gather research in different languages and disciplines. Research produced in languages that do not have solid data available online, or in disciplines that require fieldwork and experiments, will not be as available as research in areas that are more common.

Nevertheless, recent news reports indicate that student use of AI tools is growing. The Guardian reported that a lecturer at an Australian university had detected chatbot assistance in 20 percent of a set of exams she graded. And FE News reported that a Google trends analysis had found that searches for “AI essay writing” had soared by more than 2,000 percent in December, compared to the previous five years.

The first academic responses to AI-powered chatbots were all responses of panic. Educators and employers expressed their shock upon discovering what those websites could do.

Determining the extent of student use of chatbots, however, is limited by a lack of language-, geographic- and discipline-based research. Universities with instruction languages that are not widespread, or those that lack online research material, including many Arab universities, will not be exposed to the same amount of concern as those that conduct their instruction in English. Furthermore, university disciplines that require field research and primary data research will not face the same challenges as those that are more theoretical or use secondary research data.

Taking Advantage of New Opportunities

In conclusion, it is expected that the introduction of technological advancements in the public sphere, and specifically in the education sector, will continue to cause concerns. However, this is an opportunity for the education sector to modernise their methodologies of instruction. Schools and universities need to accommodate the vast and fast acquisition of digitised information and train their students to convert this information to knowledge.

Knowledge generation should not be affected by the fast access to data online. On the contrary, the education sector should take this as an opportunity to assist those who are in need of extra support and allow them to utilise this data.

Limiting access to AI-powered apps might be extremely difficult, if not impossible. With future generations, the use of further technological advancements will be inevitable. Therefore, businesses and educational institutes should incorporate such tools into their day-to-day tasks, and work on tailoring AI tools to their needs and benefits, and maximising their outcomes.

Mahjoob Zweiri, is a professor of contemporary history and politics in the Gulf and director of the Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University.

Farah Al Qawasmi, is a research assistant at the Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University.



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