Artificial Intelligence (AI) in schools: are you ready for it? Let’s talk

By Jane Hunter

Interest in the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in schools is growing. More educators are participating in important conversations about it as understanding develops around how AI will impact the work of teachers and schools.

In this post I want to add to the conversation by raising some issues and putting forward some questions that I believe are critical. To begin I want to suggest a definition of the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ or AI as it is commonly known.

What do we mean by ‘Artificial Intelligence’?

Definitions are tricky because the field is so interdisciplinary, that is it relates to many different branches of knowledge including computer science, education, game design and psychology, just to name a few.

I like the definition offered by Swedish-American physicist and cosmologist Max Tegmark. He describes Artificial Intelligence systems as being ‘narrowly intelligent because while they are able to accomplish complex goals, each AI system is only able to accomplish goals that are very specific.’

I like this definition because it mentions how complex AI can be but makes us focus on the reality that AI is narrowly focused to fulfill specific goals.

We already live in a world full of AI systems including Siri, Alexa, GPS navigators, self-driving cars and so on. In the world of education big international companies are currently working on or already marketing AI systems that develop “intelligent instruction design and digital platforms that use AI to provide learning, testing and feedback to students”.

We need to begin to pay attention to how AI will impact pedagogy, curriculum and assessment in schools, that is, how it will impact end users (teachers and students). There is a lot to think about and talk about here already.

Artificial Intelligence in Education

Conversations about Artificial Intelligence in Education ( AIEd) have been going on for many years in the world of education. This year the London Festival of Learning organised by Professor Rose Luckin and her team brought together scholars from around the world in the fields of AIEd, Learning at Scale ( large scale online learning platforms) and the Learning Sciences.

Closer to home the NSW Department of Education has been on the front foot in raising awareness of AIEd in a series of papers in its Future Frontiers agenda. This is a compilation of essays that canvas “perspectives from thought leaders, technology experts and futurists from Australia and around the world.” These are helpful articles and thought pieces. They are worth checking out and can serve to inform nascent conversations you might want to have about AIEd.

Questions for schools and teachers

It is important for researchers and teacher educators like myself to explore how AIEd will supplement and change the nature of teachers’ work in schools. We need to understand how this can be done in education so that the human intelligence and the relational roles of teachers dominate.

How will schools be involved? And how could the changing education landscape be managed as the subject of AIEd attracts more attention?

Leading research scientist and world expert in AIEd at University College London, Professor Rose Luckin (who incidentally is a former teacher, school governor, and AI developer/computer scientist), captures the core argument when it comes to school education. She says: It’s more about how teachers and students will develop sufficient understanding of AIEd so that it can be augmented by human intelligence when determining what AIEd should and should not be designed to do. For example, Luckin suggests if only purely technological solutions dominate the agenda then what AIEd can offer for change and transformation in teaching and learning will be limited.

The Australian Government’s Innovation and Science Australia (2017) report, Australia 2030, recommends prioritisation of the “development of advanced capability in artificial intelligence and machine learning in the medium- to long-term to ensure growth of the cyber–physical economy”.

It also lists Education as one of its “five imperatives for the Australian innovation, science and research system” that will equip Australians with skills relevant to 2030, thus highlighting the need to understand the implications of AIEd for schools.

Critical moment for school education

There is conclusive international evidence that we are at a critical moment for setting clearer directions for AIEd in school education.

With crucial questions being asked internationally about AIEd and local reports like Australia 2030 published we must start to probe Australian policy makers, politicians, school principals, students and parents, as well as the teaching profession more broadly about such vital issues. Indeed the NSW Department of Education held a forum to this end in 2017 and I understand more are planned.

Schools are one focus of the agenda, but how are teacher education programs in universities preparing preservice teachers for this future? Are we considering questions of AI in our preparation programs? If we need to lift the skill levels of all school students to work in an AI world then what changes might we need to make to accommodate AI in school curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, workload and teacher professional learning?

The debate about robots replacing teachers is not the main event. There will be assistants in the form of a dashboard/s for instance but humans will still do all the things that machines cannot do.

Moreover there is also a great need for deeper understandings of learning analytics. There are also questions of opaque systems, bias in algorithms, and policy/governance questions around data ethics. Such topics could form foundational programs in teacher education courses.

More hard questions

What implications do AIEd and automated worlds have for school infrastructure? How can higher education and industry support schools to be responsive and supportive to this rapidly changing world of AI?

Leaping back to the London Festival of Learning for one moment, Professor Paulo Blikstein, from Stanford University, in his keynote address painted a grim picture of the dangers that lie ahead and he told his audience that it is time to ‘make hard choices for AIEd.’

He explained a phenomenon of We Will Take It From Here (WWTIFH) that happens to researchers. It is when tech businesses tell researchers to ‘go away and play with their toys’ and that they will take over and develop the work technologically … taking over things “in the most horrible way”. Blikstein outlined how most tech companies use algorithms that are impervious and don’t consult with the field – there are few policy or ethical guidelines in the US that oversee decision making in these areas – it’s a “dangerous cocktail” described by Blikstein’s formula of:

WWTIFH + Going Mainstream + Silicon Valley Culture + Huge Economic Potential = DANGER.

I agree with his caution in that people in positions of power in teaching and learning in education need to be aware of the limitations of AI. It can help decision makers but not make decisions for them. This awareness becomes increasingly important as educational leaders interact and work more frequently with tech companies.

In teacher education in Australian universities we must begin to talk more about AIEd with those whom we teach and research. We should be thinking all the time about what AI really is and not be naïve and privilege AI over humans.

As you might sense, I believe this is a serious and necessary dialogue. There are many participants in the AIEd conversation and those involved in education at all levels in Australian schools have an important voice.


Dr Jane Hunter is an early career researcher in the STEM Education Futures Research Centre, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She was a classroom teacher and head teacher in schools both in Australia and the UK. Jane is conducting a series of STEM studies focused on building teacher capacity; in this work she leads teachers, school principals, students and communities to better understand and support education change. Her work in initial teacher education has received national and international recognition with a series of teaching awards for outstanding contributions to student learning. She enjoys writing and her research-based presentations at national and international conferences challenge audiences to consider new and alternate education possibilities. A recent podcast with Jane on AIEd can be heard here. Follow her on Twitter @janehunter01


Note from the editor: The counters on our sharing buttons are broken ( just the counters not the sharing function). Hopefully they will be working again soon.

5 thoughts on “Artificial Intelligence (AI) in schools: are you ready for it? Let’s talk

  1. Ania Lian says:

    Dear Jane
    Thank you for alerting us to these developments. Interestingly, computers came on board in 1990s and, 30 years on, our students still cant use PowerPoints, let alone educators knowing what technology can do for us. I wonder what is the reason for this of stifling of opportunities? When reading about the exciting changes that may be ahead due to AI, I wondered, what framework can guide our reflections based on our earlier experiences with technology? Yesterday I did a search on neuroscience and education, and, unexpectedly, I must admit, I found a whole thread of papers written on dangers of linking the two. There are dangers everywhere, especially when we look at new developments as “objects to buy” , rather than objects that do just the thing that we always needed. So what is that we need to support our students better? This is what I would suggest we need to focus on. Thank you once again for sharing your experiences.

    Ania Lian
    CDU, Darwin

  2. Jane Hunter says:

    Thank you for your comment Ania. My experience is that all levels of education are much more tech savvy 30 years on. In teacher education in universities there is even more work to do to ensure preservice teachers are prepared for classrooms and learning spaces in schools.

  3. Teachers need to first come to terms with the implications of the use of the Internet for education before they tackle AI. Asking a question about AI “in schools” implies that teachers think education will happen “in schools”. Teachers have the opportunity to use the Internet for education, so students can learn wherever they happen to be. If teachers don’t take up the opportunity to lead this change, it will be taken out of their hands. The gig-conomy will take over education and we will have something like “uber-ed”. AI will then be used to drive down the cost of education, minimizing the role of teachers who are paid by the minute to teach students they have never seen online and school campuses will become just child minding centers. To prevent this teachers need to engage with the technology.

  4. Jane Hunter says:

    Hi Tom
    Thank you for your comment on the post – learning in ‘third spaces’ that you allude to is already a reality for teachers/educators in schools and in universities. Interesting your point about ‘uber-ed’ … I see huge strides in engagement and innovation with technology everywhere.

  5. Jane, I suggest educators need to get used to thinking of online as the “first space” for education, with home or work second, and a campus third. I believe that computer professionals can help teachers adjust to this new reality. I will talking in Colombo on mobile learning for students of the Indo-Pacific, 4 October.

Comments are closed.

Discover more from EduResearch Matters

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading