AI in Education – the question of hype and reality

Max Gruber / Better Images of AI / Banana / Plant / Flask / CC-BY 4.0

I have spent a lot of time over the past two weeks working on the first year evaluation report for the AI pioneers Web site. Evaluation seems to come in and out of fashion on European Commission funded projects. And now its in an upswing, partly due to the move to funding projects based on the products and results, rather than number of working days claimed.

For the AI Pioneers project, I have adopted a Participant oriented approach to the evaluation. This puts the needs of project participants as its starting point. Participants are not seen as simply the direct target group of of the project but will includes other stakeholders and potential beneficiaries. Participant-orientated evaluation looks for patterns in the data as the evaluation progresses and data is gathered in a variety of ways, using a range of techniques and culled from many different sources. Understandings grow from observation and bottom up investigation rather than rational deductive processes. The evaluator’s key role is to represent multiple realities and values rather than singular perspectives.

Hopefully we will be able to publish the Evaluation report in the early new year. But here are a few take aways, mainly gleaned from interview I undertook with each of the project partners.

The partners have a high level of commitment to the project. However the work they are able to undertake, depends to a large extent on their role in their organisations and the organisations role in the wider are of education. Pretty much all of the project partners, and I certainly concur with this sentiment, feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of reports and discourse around AI in education and the speed of development especially around generative AI, makes it difficult to stay up to date. All the partners are using AI to some extent. Having said that there is a tendency to thing of Generative AI as being AI as a whole, and to forget about the many uses of AI which are not based on Large Language Models.

Despite the hype (as John Naughton in his Memex 1.1 newsletter pointed out this week AI is at the peak of the Gartner hype cycle, see illustration) finding actual examples of the use of AI in education and training and Adult Education is not easy.

A survey undertaken by the AI pioneers project found few vcoati0nal education and train9ing organisations in Europe had a policy on AI. There is considerable differences between different sectors - Marketing, Graphic design, computing, robotics and healthcare appear to be ahead but in many subjects and many institutions there is little actual movement in incorporating AI, either as a subject or for teaching and learning. And indeed, where there are initial projects taking place, this is often driven by enthusiastic individuals, with or without the knowledge of their managers.

This finding chimes with reports from other perspect6ives. Donald H Taylor and Egle Vinauskaite have produced a report looking at how AI is being used in workplace Learning and Development today, and concludes that it is in its infancy. "Of course, some extraordinary things are being done with AI within L&D," they say. "But our research suggests that where AI is currently being used by L&D, it is largely for the routine tasks of content creation and increased efficiency."

If there is one message L&D practitioners should take away from this report, it is that there is no need to panic – you are not falling far behind your peers, for the simple reason that very few are making major strides with AI. There is every need, however, to act, if only in a small way, to familiarize yourself with what AI has to offer.

Donald H Taylor and Egle Vinauskaite. Focus on AI in L&D,

Indeed, for all the talk of the digital transformation in education and training, it my be that education, and certainly higher education, is remarkably resistant to the much vaunted hype of disruption and that even though AI will have a major impact it may be slower than predicted.

What does it mean to live in a world with AI?

This is the third in our series of expert interviews about AI and education.

Linda Castaneda is Associate Professor Educational Technology at the Universidad de Murcia in Spain where she teaches preservice teachers and other professionals related to learning and undertakes continuing professional development activities for teachers and university professors.

She has recently led a research project for the European Joint Research Centre around the European Frameworks and tools for technology for teachers and trainers:

  • DigCompOrg) - supporting the development of digital capacities within educational organisations;
  • DigCompEdu – the European framework for supporting teachers and trainers in the use of technology for teaching and learning;
  • SELFIE and SELFIE Work Based Learning tools for the self-assessment of readiness of both organisation and individuals for using technology for teaching and learning. m

The study involved the analysis of the use of the Frameworks in Spain to support educational digital transformation, seen as one of the European Member States with a deeper and more extensive use of the frameworks and tools, to learn from its practical experience. The aim was to extract lessons on how to adapt, apply and use the frameworks and tools to digitally transform the Spanish educational systems and to increase the educators´ digital competences together with its educational organisations´ digital capacities.

This report highlights the importance of DigCompEdu as a framework that goes beyond the instrumental view of the digital transformation of education, helping institutions to anticipate, design and structure it. SELFIE is seen as a fundamental tool for school awareness and digital planning. Furthermore, the results consolidate the evidence of diverse approaches to digital transformation, especially considering the context of Spain, where the competence of education is at the regional level.

Linda is also involved in two projects devoted to Foster DIGCOMPEDU in University Teachers, nationally and internationally.

Graham Attwell interviewed Linda Castaneda in September 2003.

Competence Frameworks

“The major problem is how to engage participants in the process of educational digital transformation. Teachers' Training is not meaningful. Students are not motivated. Teachers and trainers complain about how useful the programme is. A reason may be that the Framework of Competences – DigCompEdu is being taken as a curriculum. But before it is useful and can be applied, its contents must be localized, the jargon needs to be translated into something close to the day-to-day experience of teachers – it needs to be based on their practice and to be important for them. At the moment many teachers are not appreciating how useful the Framework could for their area of education.

We need to translate the global framework into something which they can take ownership of. We must realise that different territories, as well as different areas of knowledge – e.g.Engineers and lawyers– have little in common. Translation is needed to make it meaningful with them.

Institutions and governments are backing the use of the Frameworks because they consider a way to be connected with a global –European– vision about the future of education, and also because they are supported by European Union money. It is all about politics and impact.

Even though frameworks are a clear approach on what to do and the perspective where to go, they come from the Anglo Saxon epistemic tradition about learning and education, which focuses on course and time-based learning. Education –with a wider approach– should include informal learning from outside the institution.

Additionally, DigCompEdu is mainly based on Blooms taxonomy, but it largely ignores the issue of metacognition and agency – the power to enact self-directed learning. It is not in the framework but is in discussion of the framework.

Digital transitions

Digital transition in education is too often focused thinking on budgets and governance, not on approaches to teaching and learning. We try to implement as many devices as possible but without challenging poor pedagogical approaches. We saw the problems in that approach in the Covid emergency. Everything about digital transformation is about teaching using a digital device or online. The most advanced technology most teachers –specially at the university– know is Turnitin. This needs a professional approach, teachers are professionals of education.

The Challenge of AI in education

The challenge of AI is what it means to day-to-day work, to the human everyday life. What does it mean to live in a world with AI.

Now we have a very restrictive curriculum. There is a growing debate over how to reshape courses. We need to rethink the purpose of education for each case, and the role of teachers in that new definition of education– e.g. what is the point of teachers especially in technical education –, it is crucial redefine human roles. We need to reconfigure the role of people and think in broader terms. For instance, why do we have a shortage of teachers, can we really replace them with AI?.

This, as everything regarding transformation of education and learning, requires a strategic approach. It is not the responsibility of some, but a systemic issue that ask everyone to have a critical perspective and to redefine the elements of the institutional structures.

Is AI just another tool, or does it redefine the essence of competence itself?

This is the second of our interviews with experts on AI in education for the AI Pioneers project. Thr interview is with Ilkka Tuomi. Ilkka Tuomi is the Founder and Chief Scientist at Meaning Processing Ltd, an independent public research organization located in Helsinki, Finland. He previously worked at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Seville, Spain. In 2020 he produced a background report for the European Parliament on the 'The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in education' and has recently produced a study 'On the Futures of technology in Education: Emerging Trends and Policy Implications' published as a JRC Science for Policy Report. He is writing and commenting regularly on AI on LinkedIn.

[Q1] Can you tell us about the motivation behind your recent publication for the EC Joint Research Centre and the future of technologies in learning?

[A1] My recent publication for the JRC was motivated by my curiosity about the future of learning and the rapidly changing technology landscape. I began by asking which technologies would be essential for policy considerations over the next decade. From this, I compiled a list of technologies that seemed promising for initial discussions. In the process, it became clear that a fundamentally new infrastructure for knowing and learning is emerging. We call this “the Next Internet” in the report. My goal was to both initiate a conversation and delve into the connections between these emerging technologies and new educational models. More broadly, I was interested in how these advancements might transform the education system itself. An essential part of my research also revolved around the evolving dynamics of knowledge production and the importance of innovation in knowledge society, and the implications this has for education. For instance, about the emerging sixth-generation networks offer intriguing sociological and cognitive perspectives, and even on the impact of AI on learning.

[Q2] How do new cognitive tools influence our understanding of learning?

[A2] These cognitive tools aren't just emerging as solutions to automate current practices. They delve much deeper, challenging our very understanding of what learning means and how it occurs. My perspective on this is shaped by my background in both AI and learning theory. I approach this topic from both a sociological viewpoint and in terms of how digital transformations impact society as a whole.

[Q3] Could you share some of your background and experiences in the field of AI?

[A3] When I was younger, I was deeply involved in neural networks research and even co-authored a book on the philosophy of AI back in 1989. Around this time, I joined the Nokia Research Center. Initially, I worked with knowledge-based systems and expert systems, in other words the good-old-fashioned AI. Over time, I transitioned towards human-computer mediated interaction and knowledge management. The latter is, of course, very much about learning and knowledge creation. While the buzz around AI is louder than ever today, I find a dearth of profound discussions on the topic. There's a pressing need for a deeper, more thoughtful debate.

[Q4] What impact do you foresee AI having on vocational education?

[A4] AI's impact on vocational education is twofold. Firstly, we're still uncertain about how AI will reshape vocations and the job market. However, it's evident that the essence of vocational training is undergoing change. Technologies, especially generative AI and other machine learning methodologies, will dramatically influence occupational structures and content. This will inevitably change what people learn. Much of what's taught in vocational schools today might become obsolete or require significant modifications. Many educators are concerned that the skills and knowledge they impart today may become irrelevant in just five years. On the other hand, AI will also change how we learn.

[Q5] How can these technologies be integrated into the educational process?

[A5] These technologies offer immense potential for educational applications. Already, there are tools that enable a generative AI system to process, for instance, technical handbooks and repair manuals. With this knowledge, the AI can then answer domain-specific queries, providing up-to-date information about tools and technologies on demand. Consider a trainee in the construction industry; they could access building schematics through AI without having to study them exhaustively. Multimodal AI interfaces could allow them to photograph an unfamiliar object and get guidance on its use. Such an application can be used in fields like automotive repair, where a mechanic can photograph a fault and receive advice on necessary parts and repair procedures. These tools not only aid in teaching but can also be directly implemented in professional settings. Such applications particularly resonate with vocational education, transforming the very core of professional knowledge and identity.

In today's rapidly evolving digital age, vocational education stands at a unique crossroads. At its core, vocational education is profoundly hands-on and concrete, focusing not on abstract knowledge but on tangible skills and real-world applications. It's about doing, making, and creating. And this is where multimodal Generative AI now comes into play.

Generative AI has the potential to integrate the concrete world with the abstract realm of digital information. Real-world objects and practical training exercises can be complemented by augmented and virtual reality environments powered by AI. We're on the brink of a transformative shift where AI will not just assist but redefine vocational training.

Furthermore, the economic implications of AI in this sphere are revolutionary. In the past, creating detailed digital representations of complex machinery, like airplanes, was a costly and time-consuming endeavor. Now, with Generative AI, these models can be produced with increased efficiency and reduced costs. Whether it's for pilot training or for a mechanic understanding an engine's intricate details, AI radically simplifies and economizes the process.

[Q6] Do we need to redefine what we mean by competence?

[A6] Traditionally, competence has been perceived as an individual's capability to perform tasks and achieve goals. It's often broken down into knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Education has historically focused on what I have called the epistemic competence components. The move towards “21st century skills and competences” is fundamentally about a shift towards behavioral competence components that include aptitudes, motives, and personality traits ranging from creativity to social capabilities.

However, an essential nuance often overlooked in our understanding of competence is the external environment. For instance, a highly skilled brain surgeon is only as competent as the tools and infrastructure available to him. It's not just about what resides in the individual's mind but also about the societal structures, technological tools, and the overarching environment in which they operate.

Reflecting on education and technology, the narrative becomes even more intricate. An educator's competence cannot be solely gauged by their ability to use digital tools. The broader context—whether a school has the required digital infrastructure or the societal norms and regulations around technology use—plays a pivotal role. Emphasizing technology for technology's sake can sometimes be counterproductive. The question arises: is AI just another tool, or does it redefine the essence of competence itself?

[Q7] What are the major challenges of AI?

[A7] Looking back, one can find parallels in the challenges faced by earlier technological innovations. My experience in the 1990s at Nokia serves as a poignant example. While AI was once viewed as a magic bullet solution, it soon became evident that the challenges in organizations were as much social as they were technological.

Communication is the heart of learning and innovation. It's not merely about making the right decisions or processing vast amounts of data. Instead, it's about the rich tapestry of human interactions that shape ideas, beliefs, and knowledge. The introduction of new technologies often disrupts existing knowledge structures and requires substantial social adaptation. The process, thus, becomes more about managing change and facilitating communication.

[IT1] [IT2] [Q8] What are the implications of AI for Agency

[A8] Humans have always externalized specific cognitive tasks to tools and technologies around them. In this light, AI doesn't stand as a looming threat but a natural progression, a tool that could enhance human cognition beyond our current boundaries. But AI is also different. Its increasing human-like interactivity and capabilities challenge our traditional, anthropocentric views on agency. In fact, one key message in our JRC report was that we need to understand better how agency is distributed in learning processes when AI is used.

Innovations like AI don't just supplement our existing reality—they redefine it. Grasping this intricate dance between societal evolution and our shifting reality is essential to fathom AI's transformative potential.

[Q39 How will AI shape the future of Education?

[A9] AI's purpose in education should be to enhance human capabilities. This enhancement isn't limited to just individual's cognitive functions; it spans the social and behavioral realms too. In contrast to the post-industrial era, when computers were increasingly used to automate manual and knowledge work, AI and the emerging next Internet are now fusing the material world and its digital representations into an actionable reality. This is something we have not seen before. The material basis of social and cultural production is changing. As a result, the nature of knowing is changing as well. My claim has been that, in such a world, education must reconceptualize its social objectives and functions. The development of human agency might well be the fundamental objective of education in this emerging world. We need to learn, not only how to do things, but also what to do and why. This may, of course, also require rethinking the futures of vocational education and training.

AI Competency Framework for Teachers

UNESCO are very active in the debates over AI in education, in part driven by their responsibility for the UN Sustainability goals on education, which in a recent report were behind on target. AI is seen as potentially developing the capacity of education provision, especially in regions like Sub Saharan Africa, which have severe shortages of teachers.

At their Digital Learning week conference, UNESCO introduced their AI Competency Framework for Teachers and School Students which they described as "a work in progress."

They say: "The AI CFT offers a simplified, yet flexible structure that can be tailored by teachers in their local classroom contexts and institutional and system decision-makers in framing their teacher professional learning systems." "The following structure "organises 18 competencies along three broadly defined levels of progression and six cross-cutting thematic aspects."

The Framework is now open for consultation either by adding comments in the online version or by filling in a consultation form. The Call for Comments and Consultation form says: "Your valuable feedback is essential to ensure that these frameworks are inclusive of diverse educational contexts across the world and that they serve as relevant guides in preparing education systems to harness the potential of AI while being responsive to AI risks and upholding ethical and rights-based values in promoting student success."

Generative AI for teaching and learning

I missed this when it was published in April. But this table, is in a Quickstart Guide to ChatGPT by UNESCO which "provides an overview of how ChatGPT works and explains how it can be used in higher education. The Quick Start Guide raises some of the main challenges and ethical implications of AI in higher education and offers practical steps that higher education institutions can take." The table provides a useful summary of the different pedagogical possibilities fo using Generative AI for teaching and learning.