University of Technology Sydney

Teachers say it’s crazy now. That’s not even the whole story

The crisis facing teachers and the teaching profession over the last decade at an international level is well-established in both the academic literature and industry reports.

Borne by compliance-driven and bureaucratic policies that have heightened accountability and scrutiny over teachers’ work, a large body of evidence has documented the negative impacts felt by teachers resulting from these policies. This includes excessive workloads and intensification of work, elevated stress and burnout, and diminished health and wellbeing. Flatlining salaries and poor professional respect have also culminated to create a disincentive to enter into the profession. 

These pressures have contributed to a growing teacher shortage internationally. The situation is so dire the United Nations (UN) has recently recommended an urgent call to action to transform education systems and the teaching profession globally.    

The UN described the COVID-19 pandemic as having “turned the world of work upside down”. On top of the pressures experienced pre-pandemic, it is crucial to understand how the work of teachers changed post-pandemic. In a recently published article, we explored the legacy impact of the pandemic on school teachers’ work.  

COVID-19: Disrupting a profession in crisis

Teachers’ work changed fundamentally due to COVID. In a matter of weeks following the World Health Organization declaring a worldwide pandemic in early 2020, governments began directing schools to shut down and shift to remote teaching and learning of students.

This experience of remote learning for teachers was fairly short-lived, particularly compared to other sectors where working-from-home has increased and sustained beyond pre-pandemic levels. But empirical studies in Australia and internationally documented the significant disruption faced by teachers from this dramatic shift to their normal ways of working. Teachers’ stress and anxiety increased substantially during the pandemic, workloads grew, and resilience was challenged. 

To ensure continuity of learning, teachers had to very quickly upskill in new technological platforms and systems, working around-the-clock to support their students, despite reports of many teachers feeling very unprepared and overwhelmed. EdTech companies seized the pandemic as an opportunity to further roll out digital technologies and online learning support to help schools during intense remote learning while profiting significantly. 

The teacher workforce shortage problem was made even more acute by the pandemic, mirroring the ‘great resignation’ trend occurring elsewhere in the world of work where millions voluntarily quit their jobs in a re-evaluation of their life and career decisions. 

Post-COVID: Sustained impacts for the teaching profession? 

The World Health Organization announced in mid-2023 that the pandemic was no longer a public health emergency. As economies and societies moved to recover from the global pandemic, the opportunity is ripe to consider how ways of working have fundamentally changed, or not, from the world of work being ‘turned upside down’. 

In a recent article, we outlined a research agenda to understand ways in which the pandemic may have marked an inflection point in disrupting education systems, specifically its sustained impact on teachers’ work and workload. We were curious to understand how the pandemic reshaped or hastened existing thinking and practice around teachers’ use of technology, delivery models of education, and more flexible ways of working. While it is difficult to establish direct causal links, we were interested to understand the ways in which teachers’ work and workload has been changing in light of these complex crises and the impact of these global trends. 

As experts in work and employment, we looked to broader patterns of change happening in the world of work, which the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated, such as remote and flexible work, automation, and augmentation to work roles and content of work, to understand what was happening to teachers’ work. Our call for further research on these trends was complemented with an interview-based project with school teachers and leaders in New South Wales, in which we share some emerging insights, to understand how the pandemic has changed teachers’ work. 

How is teachers’ work changing?

Classroom teaching remains primarily a face-to-face learning experience in physical environments for five days a week with a relatively small number of students (unlike the massification of higher education), supported by online learning. 

There are some early signs of departure from notions of fixed time and place for learning. While in interviews, some teachers mentioned that “I don’t think that fully online is the answer”, there are examples of ways that schools are experimenting with hybrid or blended ways of learning. Flexible arrangements in the form of a four-day school week have been introduced and tested in states such as Queensland in Australia and Missouri in the USA as a way to save teachers’ time and manage costs and staff shortages

Advancements in artificial intelligence have activated discussions around enabling teachers to work more efficiently and effectively through automating repetitive tasks and standardizing processes. ‘Time-saving’ strategies for teachers have also been proposed in policy solutions like the NSW Department of Education’s ‘Quality Time’ Program which uses online tools of ‘banks’ of curriculum and lesson planning material to support teachers’ lesson preparation. 

Yet, these developments have potentially major impacts for how teachers carry out their work and in understanding the way the ‘job’ of teaching is changing. And further questions remain on the implications for students’ learning and needs around social and emotional connection, as well as impacts on parents and local communities from changing models of learning. 

Always on, always available

For example, concerns have been raised about the ways the pandemic intensified the expectations of teachers (and other professional workers) to be ‘always on and available’ to work. This was a concern directly raised by teachers in our interviews, with one reporting the encroachment of work activities on their ‘personal’ time: “it’s crazy, it just feels like it’s never ending, you feel like you’re just constantly on your computer”. In response, new industrial and policy provisions in New South Wales and Queensland are empowering public school teachers with the right to ‘digitally disconnect’ to limit non-urgent communications, protect teachers’ non-work time, and support their wellbeing, with this right to become available for other workers Australia-wide under new legislation.

Many teachers also anticipate online delivery of learning to continue in the future, yet have tempered this with caution of the knock-on effects for students, as one teacher commented: “I can definitely see these online platforms, like this online delivery of content being really big in the future. I definitely think that’s going to take over most of content delivery “teaching”. But there’s still such a need for relationships and that social interaction.” 

Careful consideration needed

Technologies and emerging work arrangements are changing the way that teachers carry out their work, which has been intensified with the pandemic. But careful consideration is needed of the implications of these trends so that teachers’ professional autonomy and expertise is protected and so that there is due consideration of the impact of changes on teachers’ workload and working conditions. 

Mihajla Gavin is a senior lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney.Her research is onl education reforms affecting teachers’ conditions of work. Find her on Twitter  @Mihajla_Gavin. Susan McGrath-Champ is Professor in the Work and Organisational Studies Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management.

The one report on teaching you need to read

There’s a lot going on in the world, so you’d be forgiven for missing a big story that was announced nearly two weeks ago. It’s certainly bigger than Rupert Murdoch’s sixth fiancée , and Taylor Swift’s hotel choices, but naturally got a lot less coverage.

Although confronting troubles around the world desperately deserve immediate attention, this story focuses on a neglected, less visible issue, with calls for urgent action to address an “ongoing and worsening crisis”. It’s about a long game, ways of transforming and lifting our future outlook, it’s about ensuring we do our best to avoid conflict, mitigate natural disasters and work towards peace, democracy and shared prosperity

It’s about teachers

.. and it couldn’t be more important to the future of humanity and the planet.

The “high level panel on the teaching profession” report was commissioned by UN secretary, Antonio Gutierrez. Led by two former heads of state, and sponsored by three international organisations, the UN, the International Labour Organisation, and UNESCO, the initial announcement of the panel in July 2023 got much more media coverage than the recent release of the report. One has to wonder why.

The report puts forward “ an urgent call to action” needed to “ shape a stronger, more sustainable future” and “ our best hope for building a more sustainable and socially just world”. It outlines critical support, governance, investment , and a “new social contract” urgently needed to shift mindsets, leadership and discourse. 

The report highlights the critical and dangerous problem of current, international teacher shortages (estimated to be 44 million teachers worldwide), linking this to the low status and working conditions of teachers, insufficient capacity for teacher leadership, autonomy, and innovation and lack of professional development opportunities. Shortages are highly evident in wealthy countries, like Australia, but importing solutions has already been shown to produce “domino effects”. Add to this the challenges of stagnant and declining performance in many countries, the impact of covid, the rapidly changing technological environment and growing conflict and climate crises, it’s a nasty cocktail.

To address such wicked and interacting problems, the report argues, we need to reshape societal perceptions of teachers and transform their roles to create better education for all.

The report provides 59 recommendations, I have grouped and summarised these below. These are easily said and read, but challenging to implement. The value of the recommendations lies in their clear articulation of values and principles, which recognise the central and pivotal role of teachers in strengthening society.  

Challenging to implement

The recommendations essentially provide a checklist against which countries can evaluate their social, political and policy attention to teachers. I will consider this in relation to Australian teachers later. 


1. Enable transformation of the teaching profession:

  • Teachers need an enabling environment with holistic social support.
  • Governments should implement rights for education and decent work.
  • Education goals should promote varied learning pathways.
  • Adopt comprehensive national teacher policies through dialogue.
  • Establish mechanisms to tackle shortages and ensure equitable deployment.
  • Implement Teacher Management and Information Systems.

2. Invest in teachers:

  • Ensure at least 6% of GDP and 20% of government expenditure for education.
  • Long-term investment in teachers is essential for system sustainability.
  • Monitor and evaluate education spending and ensure financial autonomy.

3. Promote equity, diversity and inclusion:

  • Develop policies to promote equity and diversity in teaching.
  • Provide incentives for teachers in rural and hardship settings.
  • Develop policies to support teachers in crisis-affected areas.
  • Facilitate the integration of refugee teachers into host communities.

4. Educate for Sustainable Development:

  • Integrate sustainability education into curricula.
  • Train teachers for global citizenship and human rights.
  • Develop adaptation strategies for climate resilience.

5. Foster Decent Work in Teaching:

  • Ensure secure employment and working conditions for teachers.
  • Ensure fair salaries and gender pay equity.
  • Provide supportive working conditions for teachers’ well-being.
  • Promote mental health and well-being policies for teachers.
  • Support education support personnel to reduce non-teaching tasks.

5. Nurture leadership in Teaching and Human-Centred Education Technology:

  • Foster collaborative school leadership for recruitment and retention.
  • Encourage distributed leadership within schools.
  • Promote policies for diversity in leadership.
  • Pedagogically integrate technology for active learning.
  • Ensure autonomy and privacy in technology use.
  • Train teachers and learners to use technology effectively.


What this means for Australian education

There’s a lot in this relatively thin 44 page report, so I’ll just touch on a few points regarding the first recommendation. In full, it reads like this:

“1. Teachers are the central element in the transformation of education systems. Yet teachers do not work in a vacuum. To be effective, they require an enabling environment and holistic social support for their work. Governments should develop economic and social policies that support teaching and learning through adequate and equitable funding for education and lifelong learning. Such policies should ensure that parents and families have the time and capacity to support learners, that learners have access to adequate nutrition and healthcare services, that learning spaces are safe and inclusive, that learning institutions have adequate infrastructure and connectivity, and that the teaching profession enjoys high status and support.” 

I’ve highlighted a few weak points for Australia, the first relates to holistic social support for teachers. Australia could clearly do better here. In particular media discourse and analysis of educational problems, often point the finger at teachers as responsible for our current educational malaise. Educational accountability is often placed solely at the feet of teachers, yet, as the panel points out:

“Just as teachers need to be accountable to students, education systems and communities overall, teachers themselves require accountability from the system. This involves providing decent working conditions, including sustainable workloads, work-life balance, appropriate class sizes, adequate infrastructure and resources, professional autonomy and agency, and safe and healthy working environments. “ ( p.27)

Given the documented issues related to Australian teachers’ ’decent working conditions’, both accountability frameworks and teachers’ sense of holistic social support are important considerations if we are to progress – and meet the international benchmark laid out in this recommendation. 

What we need to progress

So too, the arrangements needed to meet “adequate and equitable funding”. On this front, Australia has an extremely poor record and is unable to meet requirements for “the efficiency and efficacy of education funding and spending on teachers needs to be monitored and evaluated” and  “ budget tracking and evaluation mechanisms and analysis should ensure transparency and accountability for spending. “  detailed later in the report. Successive reviews, including by the national audit office, have made this clear.

In the first recommendation, and throughout the report ,there is a strong focus on lifelong learning, both for teachers and students. Lifelong learning is one of Australia’s national goals, as laid out in the Mparntwe declaration, however it is rarely rates a mention in high level policy (e.g. the National School Reform Agreement, where it is never mentioned), indicators of it are underdeveloped, and not evident in government national  reporting.  Developing lifelong approaches to learning, firstly among teachers, their students, and system architecture is currently an area of national policy with unrealised potential. 

There’s a lot more to be unpacked in relation to this initial recommendation. It raises many questions about how we support families so they can support learners, and also how we might integrate nutrition, healthcare and other services into education in schools. Many other countries do this highly effectively and it would be worth reviewing our current arrangements.  

Nutrition and health care. What else?

In order to tackle the many challenges the report later specifically suggests:

“Governments should establish national commissions or other mechanisms, which should include relevant financial authorities, representatives of teachers’ organizations and other relevant stakeholders, to assess and tackle shortages of adequately trained teachers. Such commissions or mechanisms should address labour market analyses, recruitment, teacher migration, attrition and retention, compensation, status and rights, workload and wellbeing, equity (including the ratio of qualified teachers to students), equality and infrastructure.” p.4

To me, this is the most valuable recommendation, echoing calls around Australia for the last 10 years. We need an independent body to review and advise on education and strengthen system accountability. If we had one we might not find ourselves with inequitable funding, poor working conditions and a teacher shortage crisis. It’s not too late to start and turn things around. There’s a new commission for higher education being developed now – can we expand on that vision?

Can we respond to the panel and Guterres’ call and join the “powerful global call to action”?

Rachel Wilson is Professor, Social Impact, University of Technology Sydney Business School . She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter@RachelWilson100.

The Voice referendum: If you don’t know, I challenge you to find out

The claim by the ‘No’ campaign that if you ‘don’t know, then vote no’ in the Voice referendum is a troubling indictment on the state of democracy and civics and citizenship education in Australia. It privileges a passive and limited conception of citizenship that is at odds with what it means to be a citizen in Australia, and makes a mockery of Australia’s long history of civic action and engagement. It privileges wilful ignorance, and outsources the responsibility for informed democracy to politicians, rather than the citizens themselves, and in doing so, insults every Australian who has taken the time to explore the arguments for and against the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. That such claims should flourish is hardly surprising; civics and citizenship education in Australia’s schools has, for too long, been overlooked by politicians and policy makers, despite the rhetoric to the contrary. 

Young Australians should be active and informed

This shout-out to ignorance is a direct contradiction to the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. This document sets out the fundamental principles for education in Australia, and is agreed upon by all ministers of education from the various jurisdictions. There are only two goals within the Declaration, and the second one states that all young Australians should become ‘active and informed members of the community’. It goes on to describe that this includes (amongst other things) having ‘an understanding of Australia’s system of government, its histories, religions and culture’, being committed to ‘to national values of democracy, equity and justice’, and ‘contributing to local and national conversations’. There is a clear emphasis upon the role of a citizen to be involved – but also to be informed. This finding out information and thinking carefully is central to the Declaration – and also to what it means to be a citizen in Australia. 

Currently there is no greater national conversation than the upcoming Voice referendum. Yet it is a failing – of our media, of our politicians, and of our education system – that our young people are limited in their potential and their capacity to take part in that conversation because the education system is not providing them with the opportunity to develop the skills to become informed. Regardless of whether they are old enough to vote or not, the Voice referendum is a significant opportunity for young people to learn about civics and citizenship: about how democracy is done. And it is an opportunity that we are missing.

The system is failing our young people

There are lots of reasons for this state of affairs. Within the education system, there is confusion about the place of civics and citizenship education. While it is part of the Australian Curriculum, it is often taught in conjunction with other subjects, such as History and Geography. This leads to it being squeezed out in place of this other content. And of course there’s also the challenge that teachers face when trying to teach it: many teachers lack any specific subject expertise in topics like government, politics or civics and citizenship – which means that they are very conscious of their own ignorance in this area and are likely to avoid it.

Teachers are also at risk of being targeted for teaching about supposedly controversial issues in this subject area, such as topics like climate change,  equality and race, which means they run the risk of raising the ire of parents or the more extremist elements of the media. Finally, when it is taught, it is often taught in such a way that it is distant from a students’ own experience.

Learning about the constitution is vital, and indeed, should be a right of every child – but it needs to be done in such a way that allows students to connect their own experiences with what they are learning, lest it become a dull and uninspiring recitation of facts and figures. None of this is particularly new: since the first assessments about civic literacy as part of the National Assessment Program, concerns have been raised about the place of civics and citizenship education in Australia’s schools, as many students were failing even to reach proficiency. 

Never before has it been so easy

What is new is the onslaught of misinformation and disinformation that young (and not-so-young) people are exposed to via both social and legacy media. Never before has it been so easy for people to share biased information so quickly to such large numbers of people – and it is already apparent  that this is influencing the debate and having a detrimental effect on the ability of organisations with a vested interest in education about this topic in sharing their message and resources. Organisations like The Museum of Australian Democracy, or The Rule of Law Education Centre have largely been drowned out. This only highlights the importance of changing civics and citizenship education to address these concerns, so that citizens are better capable of engaging with national conversations, discerning facts from opinion, critically evaluating information and making their own informed decisions. 

Beyond Mparntwe

In order to do this, we need to recognise the importance of civics and citizenship in Australian schools – in actions, and not just in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. Part of this means understanding – and preparing – teachers for the important role they play as democracy workers through more focus on civics and citizenship education in initial teacher education programs. Beyond the Voice referendum, we must also find space within the Australian Curriculum for more civics and citizenship education, and even consider whether it should be taught as a separate learning area, as is the case in England.

We also need to recognise that young people are at risk from mis- and disinformation campaigns, and they need to be taught, at school, about such campaigns and how they can deal with them. Most importantly, though, as adults, we need to remember that wilful ignorance is not a democratic virtue, and we should challenge any short-sighted and divisive campaign that argues otherwise. 

Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is currently exploring the way that online learning platforms can assist in the formation of active citizenship amongst Australian youth. He is a former high school teacher, who worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors. He has also worked as an organiser for the Independent Education Union of Australia, and as an independent learning designer for a range of organisations. He tweets @keithheggart

More to read:

Refugee Week: Why universities could – and how they should – offer refuge

Every year, a fraction of the world’s forcibly-displaced people get the opportunity to resettle in one of the main refugee-resettling countries, including Australia.  Refugees escape war and violence and search for a place to rebuild their lives. Access to and success in higher education supports refugee integration. However, while access to higher education is around 40 per cent on average globally, among refugees, it is only six per cent.

There is much universities can do to address this challenge! 

This week (June 18 to June 24) is international Refugee Week and its theme is Finding Freedom. Freedom is more than the absence of suffering and persecution; genuine freedom entails having the opportunities to be and do what one has reason to value. For refugees, having real freedom means being able to make their own decisions, engage meaningfully in society, and achieve their goals and aspirations. 

In this piece we reflect on education as a means of freedom and the role of universities in helping refugees find freedom.

Globally, universities engage in humanitarian work in many ways. Universities, as public goods, can facilitate integration opportunities through their role in society. Firstly, as sites of higher learning, universities can offer hope and pathways to individual, community development and tools for economic participation and future nation-rebuilding. Secondly, as key brokers between students and professions — through liaison with community, employers, and professional associations — universities can push for more postgraduate opportunities and shift employer and societal attitudes towards more positive welcome for forced migrants. Thirdly, universities have a role to play in creating more durable solutions to refugee resettlement through the development of educational migration refugee pathways.

Universities Can and Should Play a Bigger Role in Supporting Refugees

In a recent book, entitled The Good University, sociologist Raewyn Connell highlights five key features of a good university. For Connell, a good university is democratic, engaged, truthful, creative, and sustainable,“fully present for the society” that supports it. An engaged university is a responsive and responsible university. A good university produces socially relevant knowledge for addressing pervasive issues (e.g. environmental catastrophe and humanitarian crises). An engaged university deals with difficult societal issues such as injustice, racism, domination, and exploitation.

A good university is not simply an economic machinery; it does not aspire just to contribute to knowledge economy. A good (and engaged) university is committed to building a knowledge society that is just, caring, democratic, and sustainable. 

In our collective response to humanitarian crises, universities have three critical roles to play. The most common strand of engagement concerns widening access to teaching and learning in higher education. Universities can offer special consideration to admit forcibly displaced people, including offering online access to courses to people in displacement contexts, such as this example from the University of Leicester in the UK. Many universities in Australia and internationally also offer financial assistance in the form of scholarships.  

The second form of humanitarian response is research and training. Universities generate knowledge on causes, consequences, and potential solutions of humanitarian crisis. Humanitarian training focuses on equipping leaders in emergencies with evidence-based knowledge and skills. Examples include the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Deakin University’s Centre for Humanitarian Leadership.

The third example of university responses to humanitarian crisis is advocacy. University staff and students in the Global North engage in awareness raising activities and campaigns. The efforts range from mobilising financial resources and engaging in public consultation to organizing seminars and panel discussions on humanitarian issues. National examples of coordinated advocacy include the Universities of Sanctuary movement in the UK and the Welcoming University initiative in Australia. The Refugee Education Special Interest Group is an example of a grassroots activism network in Australia that works to advocate for better educational opportunities and outcomes for students from forced migration backgrounds. At the institutional level, the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion at UTS is an excellent example of a university that is leveraging its resources to advocate at the local level, as well as using its networks to amplify its own and other advocates’ messages nationally.

Policy Invisibility of Refugees

Policy invisibility is a major issue in Australia. Despite being a signatory to major global refugee-related initiatives, including the Refugee Convention (1951) and the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (2016), Australia has failed to ensure that refugees are consistently included in educational policies. Major national inclusion initiatives (for example, the Multicultural Access and Equity Guide and the Alice Spring Educational Declaration) recognise refugees as targets of policy action. However, when it comes to the higher education sector, refugees are invisible. They are subsumed under other equity groups such as Non-English Speaking Background or low Socio-Economic status group. None of these grouping recognise unique educational needs of refugees.  Policy invisibility at sectoral level means, universities have little or no financial incentives to support students with forced migration backgrounds. 

What can be done

In a report to the Commonwealth government, Peter Shergold and colleagues stressed: “Investing in refugees, investing in Australia”.  That is true.  High educational attainment enables refugees to actively participate in the economic, social, and cultural lives of the host society.  It supports integration. Conversely, low educational attainment means a loss of human capital, which in turn may diminish national economic productivity and competitiveness. This is particularly the case, given the majority of refugees are young and eager to rebuild their lives. 

In their journeys to, through, and out of higher education, refugees and asylum seekers in Australia can face many challenges associated with English language proficiency, navigational resources, and ongoing academic support. 

Facing similar challenges, the German government managed to enrol tens of thousands of refugees into higher education by (a) funding an independent agent that could assess educational levels and qualifications of refugees, (b) supporting refugees to study in special academic preparatory colleges, and (c) providing funding to universities  enable them to provide ongoing academic support to refugee students.

We believe we can learn a lesson from the coordinated approach to refugee education in Germany. This requires policy recognition as a formally identified equity cohort; it necessitates sustained ‘Welcoming Refugees Universities’ coordination; and it demands a greater shared responsibility between students, staff, institutions, and governments to make sure that the challenges we have been writing about for nearly 10 years become action points, rather than points of perennial concern. 

What matters is that educational opportunities help refugees find freedom. The importance of freedom and education for refugees cannot be overstated. For refugees, freedom means more than just the absence of physical confinement. It also means the ability to live a life of dignity and autonomy. Education is a key enabler of this kind of freedom. 

A free and fair society should ensure that all qualified members have access to quality and relevant higher education. By providing refugees with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive, education empowers them to build a better future for themselves, and their families. 

From left to right: Dr Tebeje Molla is a Senior Lecturer and ARC Future Fellow in the School of Education at Deakin University, Australia. Dr Sally Baker is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW. The Hon. Prof. Verity Firth is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Social Justice & Inclusion) and Executive Director, Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion at UTS.

ChatGPT: What do we know now? What must we learn next?

I was honoured to join a TEQSA/CRADLE panel last week, the third in a series on the implications of ChatGPT (or GenAI more broadly) for higher education. In the second panel in March, I flagged the absence (at that early stage) of any evidence about whether students have the capacity to engage critically with ChatGPT. So many people were proposing to do interesting, creative things with students — but we didn’t know how it would turn out.

But three months on, we now have:

* myriad demos of GPT’s capabilities given the right prompts

* a few systematic evaluations of that capability

* myriad proposals for how this can enable engaging student learning and a small but growing stream of educators’ stories from the field with peer reviewed research about to hit the streets.

I also urge us to harness the diverse brilliance of our student community in navigating this system shock, sharing what we’re learning from our Student Partnership in AI. 

The following is an edited transcript of my presentation to the panel.

Educators are now beginning to be able to articulate what ChatGPT literacy looks like,  they have a sense of what the range of ability is within their cohort, and they’re beginning to gain insights into how to better scaffold their students. So for example, I’ve been talking to some of my most exciting colleagues here at UTS, asking them to tell me, how are you using ChatGPT? And in particular, what’s the capacity of your students to engage critically with its output? That is something we hear a lot about all the time. Three months ago, we really couldn’t articulate what that looked like. Now we can. So let me give you four glimpses of what some of my colleagues were saying to me. 

Antonette Shibani  teaches applied NLP to data science master’s students – they have to write a critical summary and a visual map of ethical issues using NLP. They’re encouraged to use ChatGPT for various purposes and to reflect on their use of it, and how useful it was. So the most able students, she tells me, could engage in deep conversations with AI, and they were using excellent prompts and follow up replies to the agent, whereas the less able students were using simple prompts to access content they didn’t have deeper discussions with the AI.

Here’s Baki Kocaballi, teaching interaction design, and the students are using GPT to develop user personas and scenarios, ideating solutions and reflecting critically. The most able students were doing this, they were generating rich scenarios with ChatGPT. Yet he was not seeing any critical reflection on what made an AI output an appropriate or accurate response. And Baki is reflecting that this may be something to do with the subjective nature of design practice. The less able students could still get some good responses but not much good reflection going on. And he notes that he needs to provide more scaffolding and examples for the students. So we see this this professional learning as well amongst the teachers. 

Here’s Anna Lidfors Lindqvist, training student teams to work together to build robots, and again encouraging their use of ChatGPT and reflecting critically on it. The most able students could use it in quite fluent and effective ways. But the less able students  she notes, they’re  not really validating and checking GPT’s calculations. They’re struggling to apply information in the context of the project. Some actually just dropped GPT altogether. It’s just too much work to actually get it to do anything useful.

And a final example from Behzad Fatahi, teaching Yr 2-3 students, they’re using ChatGPT but they’re also using a simulation tool called Plexus to analyze soil structure interaction problems. The most engaged students were behaving as shown, but the least engaged students were struggling and were behaving like this. So, the point is not so much the details — the point is that our academics are starting to know, what does good look like? What can I expect from my students? There is clearly a diversity of ability to engage critically with a conversational, generative AI.

And when you step back from these particular examples and asked again, what are going to be the foundational concepts and evidence as it grows, around what we could call generative AI literacy, for learning, not for marketing, not for any other purposes that can be useful — for learning.

Conversational agents are not new in the world of education. They’ve been around in the AI and research literature for donkey’s years, but used well, they should move us towards more dialogical learning and feedback. So we’re all used to thinking about student peer feedback, learning designs, they’re now going to be interacting with agents. Those agents will be interacting with them and potentially with other agents as well, playing different roles and we will learn how to orchestrate these agents and define the roles they need to play. 

And every turn in this conversation is a form of feedback. The question is what move does the student make next? How do they engage with that feedback from humans and machines?

Now, we have concepts and evidence from pre-generative AI research around this. We have concepts such as student feedback literacy, and we have been taking inspiration from that and talking about student automated feedback literacy now. There is the notion of teacher feedback literacy as well, and similarly, we’re working on teacher automated feedback literacy. So these are powerful concepts I think, for helping us think about how we can study and equip students to engage in powerful learning conversations.

The final point I want to make is we need to work with our students.

We’ve been working with our Students’ Association here at UTS. We had over 150 applicants for a workshop where we took a stratified sample of 20. They engaged in pre-workshop readings where we presented them with a range of dilemmas involving ChatGPT and Turnitin, took part in online discussions and had a face to face workshop. They got briefings from UTS experts introducing generative AI, explaining how it’s being used creatively at UTS, such as the examples I just showed you,alking about the ethical issues around generative AI and talking about Turnitin what do we know about it? And should we turn it on? That is a decision we’re trying to make at UTS at the moment.reakout groups, a plenary discussion and we have a report currently under review by the students as to whether they have they’re happy with that as a summary of what they talked about.

But let me just share three examples of what they told us and you’ll see some echoes here with what we heard from Rowena Harper earlier. 

  • Firstly, they are asking, please equip us to use ChatGPT for learning. We are aware that it could actually undermine our learning if we don’t use it well, but what does that mean? You’re the educators — you should be able to tell us how to use it effectively for learning and not in a way that torpedoes our learning. 
  • Secondly, can we have more assessments, integrating ChatGPT in sensible ways. They were very excited to see the examples such as the ones I showed you because not all of them have experienced that yet. And finally, Turnitin. Well, yes, it may have a role to play as part of an overall approach to academic integrity. But please handle with care. If there are any questions about our academic integrity, we want to be invited for a respectful conversation, and not be accused of misconduct when, as we are already hearing, Turnitin is backing off from some of its original claims about how good its software is. It’s a very fast-moving arms race. 

So just to wrap up,  here are three questions about what we need to learn next. 

  • What do we mean by generative AI literacy and how do we scaffold it? 
  • How well do generative AI learning designs translate across contexts? They may look very promising, but we have to actually deploy those and study them in context. 
  • And finally, how are we going to engage our students in codesigning this radical shift with us? We talk a lot about diversity of voices and the design of AI. We absolutely need them on board, trusting the way we’re using this technology, seeing that we’re using it responsibly and ethically, and bringing the perspectives that they have. They’re the ones on the receiving end of all this policy we’re talking about.

Simon Buckingham-Shum is the director of the Connected Intelligence Centre at the University of Technology Sydney. He has a career-long fascination with the potential of software to make thinking visible. His work sits at the intersection of the multidisciplinary fields of Human-Computer Interaction, Educational Technology, Hypertext, Computer-Supported Collaboration and Educational Data Science (also known as Learning Analytics).