To Capture the Benefits of AI, Schools Need to Rethink Their Models

Special Focus : Reinventing Education for the AI Age
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership September 21, 2017

Technological advances over the last two decades now bring machines knocking on employers’ doors. Artificial intelligence (AI) software can already prepare taxes, drive cars, write news articles, and compose poetry; and recent reports suggest that roughly half to two-thirds of jobs today are at risk of computer automation. As AI handles a growing number of tasks, the most valued and secure jobs available to our students will be those that require sophisticated human skills—such as developing creative solutions to novel problems and managing complex social interactions. These technologies will also create a host of new political, environmental, and ethical questions for generations to come. As a result, schools today must not only help more students achieve at higher levels, but also help them master skills that are often less emphasized in formal education. 

Fortunately, the technological advances changing our world also provide tools to help us reimagine schooling. Since Benjamin Bloom’s research in the 1980s, we’ve known the power of individual tutoring and mastery-based learning. Yet for more than a century we’ve moved students through single-paced standardized content in large groups because we can’t afford to hire expert tutors for every student. Now the constraints that shaped traditional schooling are falling away. Students today have access to an enormous array of online learning experiences, and the AI engines behind many online learning platforms are starting to imitate the benefits of individual tutoring. Adaptive learning software can measure students’ mastery of learning content, offer real-time feedback on students’ practice activities, and guide students through individualized learning pathways based on their particular learning needs. Furthermore, as the AI behind these technologies improves, the software can increasingly identify and address students’ more idiosyncratic misconceptions and provide feedback on students’ open-ended written responses. 
But the future of learning is not purely online. The most powerful benefit of these technologies comes from how they enable and empower face-to-face teachers. Much as hydraulic excavators augment a builder’s physical strength for moving earth, or high-powered telescopes magnify an astronomer’s power to see beyond the stars, innovations in education can amplify a teacher’s capability to affect students’ lives. Technology can streamline and automate some routine teaching tasks such as attendance, direct instruction, practice activities for basic skills, and some types of grading. This in turn empowers expert teachers to focus more on helping students develop important skills such as scientific reasoning, mathematical modeling, effective communication, creative problem solving, project management, teamwork, leadership, and social and emotional intelligence through mentoring, coaching, and rich learning experiences based in projects and real-world applications.
Yet despite their promising potential, the benefits of AI will not flow organically into our established education systems. Transforming our schools to prepare students for life in the twenty-first century requires schools to rethink their instructional models. Schools’ natural response to new technology is to layer it onto longstanding processes. Capturing the benefits of these technologies, however, requires rethinking some of the basic assumptions of school operation. For example, does content need to be divided into traditional courses like Algebra, Chemistry, and World History? Or are students better served by weaving together content from across traditional subjects into real-world projects? Do students need to follow a schedule of units and semesters? Or should the time a student spends on a topic vary based on how slowly or quickly that student is able to master content? And should learning happen in classrooms where one adult acts as the primary source of instruction for 20 to 30 students? Or might learning happen best in settings where online learning is the initial source of instruction and where large groups of 40 to 60 students collaborate on projects with the support of multiple adults? Schools that aim to capture the benefits of AI to prepare students for the 21st century need to wrestle with these questions. If they do not rethink some of the basic assumptions and structures of how they operate, the benefits of AI in education will be marginal at best, and schools will ultimately fail at preparing their students for the modern world.
As we race into a brave new AI-empowered future, one of the most important gifts we can give students is the confidence and ability to thrive in a novel and complex world transformed by artificial intelligence. Fortunately, artificial intelligence also supplies the tools to rethink traditional instruction, empower teachers, and raise our education systems to new heights.