When it comes to generative AI, we should strive for interpersonalization--creating connections between students and teachers.

AI promises to deliver education its holy grail–as it turns out, we’re on the wrong quest


We should strive for interpersonalization--creating connections between teachers and their students, as well as among students

Key points:

Personalization has long been the holy grail of education. Every time a new method, new program, or new technology comes along, it promises to provide individual instruction customized to the needs of each student so they can progress through the subject matter at their own pace and ultimately earn the diploma, degree, or credential they’re seeking. 

Generative artificial intelligence is the latest development that pledges personalized instruction for all learners. But recent discussions about AI–its promise, its pitfalls, its potential to transform education for the better or disrupt it entirely–risk giving AI too much attention. That deflects from the attention we give one another. Teaching and learning are–and should remain–human endeavors. The goal we should be striving for instead is interpersonalization, where we seek to create connections between teachers and their students as well as among students.

My fear is that generative AI could accelerate what’s been called an “epidemic of loneliness” among students. As AI becomes better able to simulate human knowledge and interactions, it heightens the risk that students will be further isolated from their teachers and each other. That requires teachers to develop caring and humane pedagogies that connect with the people they are teaching. Critical digital pedagogy, the research field I helped surface more than a decade ago, has never been about digital technology. It always has been concerned with human beings and how pedagogy is exercised through technology. We teach through the screen, in other words, not to it. 

Like most technology, generative AI leans into a desire for greater efficiency. Its supporters say AI can lead us to education’s holy grail because it can make learning faster and more personalized. Eventually, they add, this new technology could solve the entrenched problems of teacher shortages and overcrowded classrooms. 

And while I see meaningful opportunities to embrace AI in the classroom–and I’ve spent the last year teaching a series of courses to help faculty grapple with how to, or not, use AI in their practice–my view is that generative AI cannot replace a teacher who can create and fine-tune lessons and information for their students. It cannot replace a teacher who can see and hear when a student is struggling, who can build a relationship with the whole student, and who knows when to modify, change, or scrap an assignment based on a student’s unique needs.

When we talk about personalization, we really should be talking about care. To paraphrase bell hooks, the American educator and social critic, it’s essential for teachers to respect and care for the souls of their students so learning can begin. Seen in that light, teaching isn’t something that should be automated. Rather, teaching is a mechanism for transformation of the possible. AI cannot give us human passion, human imagination, or human connection, no matter how well we engineer our prompt.

Finally, AI cannot replace the spontaneous and original thought processes that arise from human interaction. Though generative AI is extremely sophisticated, it is neither innately creative nor truly generative. It synthesizes things that exist–books already written, research already discovered, ideas already expressed–and regurgitates them on the digital page. As Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, philosopher, and advocate for critical pedagogy, once wrote: “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” The true essence of creativity lies within the interaction among humans and the interplay of human minds. Good and caring teaching–which is an act of human imagination, spontaneity and possibilities–can spark creativity in other humans from which new discoveries, new knowledge and new ways of thinking can emerge.

Whether generative AI can lead educators to the holy grail of personalization is beside the point. We still need to understand the entirety of what AI is capable of, what it does well, and where it falls short. Educators should feel comfortable embracing AI when there’s a need for it and rejecting it where there is not. Attention is a limited resource, and allowing ourselves to spend this precious resource thinking about AI solutions, rather than solutions that best meet the needs of learners, does a disservice to both ourselves and our students. 

In an impersonal digital age, human connection matters now more than ever. Education is about people. Learning happens when teachers can build relationships between and among their students. We cannot let a quest toward personalization make education more impersonal and less connected.

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