While the scientific nature of artificial intelligence (AI) has frequently been used as a marketing term in recent years, AI does have some fascinating implications for instruction.
But perhaps one of the biggest things to remember about AI is that it will not eliminate teaching—it will humanize it.
“We hear that AI will take away faculty—AI is, in fact, going to supplement the work we already do,” said Jennifer Sparrow, senior director of teaching and learning with technology at Penn State. In that role, she focuses on innovation and technology-enhanced teaching and learning.
During EDUCAUSE, Sparrow, along with Kyle Bowen, director of innovation for teaching and learning with technology, shared how AI can help with teaching from different points of view, including ideation, design, assessment, facilitation, and reflection.
“We see [teaching] as a key area where AI can have influence. It changes how we think about supporting or empowering our teachers,” Bowen said.
Sparrow likened using AI tools in teaching to the way a jazz band interacts—as one instrument winds down, another picks up, much like different AI tools function for different instructional needs.
“The idea is that we grow together, build on ideas, and we come to a better result,” she said.
An AI tool can be taught to focus on certain facts or aspects of a larger idea to help educators target specific concepts.
Using Eureka!, a tool built at Penn State, educators can start with a search for a concept. Eureka! returns results, and educators select the results that best reflect the ideas they want to highlight within that concept. This teaches Eureka! to refine its original definition of the idea, leading to streamlined results and more relevant information for the instructor.
“In this case, you’re working with a machine to teach it what you mean by that terms, within the scope of what you’re teaching,” Bowen said. “Even though our faculty are scholars and experts in their given topics, Eureka! always uncovers something new.”
AI also plays a role in the way instructors deliver information to students. Another Penn State-created tool, BbookX, uses algorithms to return open educational resources that instructors can turn into open-source textbooks for students.
BbookX can help instructors gather basic background materials for students, and the tool also can be used to personalize learning materials for students.
“Students can define what they know and don’t know, and they can personalize a textbook and study materials—this is personalized learning in its highest form,” Sparrow said.
“If I could just teach without having to grade, it would be an ideal world,” Sparrow joked.
But in all honesty, many educational resources don’t come with assessment materials such as existing multiple-choice test questions, and creating assessments is time-consuming.
That’s where AI comes in. “What we want to think about is that assessment piece—not whether the AI bot replaces the faculty member, but whether it helps with the academic journey.”
To that end, Sparrow and Bowen’s team built Inquizitive, a quiz engine tool that uses text, such as textbook paragraphs supplied by an instructor, to help build assessments. Inquizitive takes that supplied text and identifies key concepts, words, and phrases with which to construct an assessment.
AI also has fascinating applications for preservice teachers, Sparrow said.
In 2015, the university’s faculty innovation challenge resulted in a winning project that would put preservice teachers in front of a classroom of AI-powered virtual students.
“When you put student teachers in front of classes, the students don’t always misbehave in the ways they really will long-term,” she said. “We can teach AI to misbehave so teachers have a chance to really see those behaviors and react.”
AI has interesting applications for education reflection, too, Sparrow said. For instance, it can be used to evaluate audio recordings of class sessions and give instructors feedback on engagement and activity inside the classroom, similar to how a wearable fitness tracker breaks down a workout.
If educators can move past the idea that AI and machine learning will render human instructors obsolete, they’ll begin to see the vast potential AI holds for education.
“This is about giving faculty access to the tools that will make them more creative, more engaging, and it’s about the robot helping to augment the human experience,” Sparrow said.