The Teacher in the Machine: Embracing the Role of AI in Education.

May 15, 2024

Artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly transforming education, promising a future brimming with possibilities. But amidst the excitement, a crucial question arises: how can we ensure AI is used productively, ethically and responsibly within our world of education?

 

One college has been addressing these questions and is achieving significant impact with its approach, and we share some of the insights from this work in this article. 

Basingstoke College of Technology, (BCoT) is a Google Reference Site recognised for its commitment to sustainable innovation in teaching and learning. Recently under the leadership of their Head of Teaching, Learning and Digital Scott Hayden the college has been pioneering the impactful application of artificial intelligence platforms to streamline workflows and make life better for busy people in education. Combining the power of platforms like Google Workspace for Education, Google Gemini AI and a well designed executable strategy, the college has achieved some remarkable results even in the early stages of its AI journey.

Basingstoke College of Technology (BCoT) was especially focused on the responsible and impactful deployment of AI in an education setting, focusing on how AI enabled platforms such as Google Workspace and Gemini can enhance student well-being, foster human connection,  personalise learning in new ways and streamline educator workflows. For anyone who believes that technology should make our lives better, this is a great example. It’s our contention that the vision for AI must always be built on putting the human not just in the loop, but at its core. Having worked with colleagues at BCoT over a number of years I know from personal experience that the vision has always been focused on how we learn best, and the work that Scott and the team lead is built on foundations of how technology can support learning alongside our collective wellbeing and productivity, without sacrificing either, in a human driven, not technology led, approach. 

Let’s explore this in more detail.

Tailoring Education to Individual Needs.

Imagine a world where AI supports educators to identify students struggling with a particular concept and goes further to provide dedicated targeted support under the supervision of a teacher. This personalised approach is precisely what AI can offer. Educational tools powered by AI can analyse student performance data, flag potential difficulties, and offer tailored exercises or resources in new ways. This proactive approach can empower students, fostering a sense of accomplishment and boost confidence. As BCoT makes use of powerful productivity tools such as Google Workspace for Education and Gemini the college has demonstrated causality between the effective deployment of these platforms and releasing time for educators to spend more time focused on learning and student wellbeing. In simple terms, the technology can be seen to be helping to bring the educator and the student closer to the learning by providing more time for personalised support. 

In education one size never fits all, where standardisation has long been a controversial topic. The potential for AI-powered platforms to personalise learning experiences by analysing student strengths, weaknesses, and learning patterns is significant in this context. It can enable a teacher to secure unprecedented insights into learning progress in real time and make more timely interventions differentiated for the unique requirements of every student. 

Imagine an AI system that helps to curate learning pathways under the supervision of the teacher and based on highly individual needs. A student excelling in maths might be presented with more challenging problems in a more timely and tailored way, while another student needing additional support might receive personalised instruction and practice exercises designed for their specific requirements. This tailored approach caters to individual potential, fostering a deeper understanding and a love for learning and builds on well established tools and techniques deployed in education but can enable it in more timely and impactful ways.

AI: Empowering Educators, Streamlining Workflows

Educators are the foundation of education but are increasingly stretched in terms of the multiple demands on their time and resources.  AI enabled tools like Google Workspace and Google Gemini can help to transform workflows by automating administrative tasks. This frees up valuable time for educators to focus on higher level activities such as providing personalised guidance and fostering student interaction and this isn’t just theoretical at BCoT where they’ve been doing it and have the impact data to demonstrate it, so let’s hear from Scott at BCoT directly.

The BCoT Journey with Scott Hayden

I believe this is the most exciting time in the history of education. 

However, it’s crucial that we as a sector approach this opportunity correctly. Without careful navigation, we risk triggering moral panics that could deter individuals from harnessing this potent force to enhance teaching, learning, and well-being.

In May 2023, our starting point was to focus on utilising GenAI advancements to support our educators’ planning and workload management as they prepared for the new year. We wanted to build a deeper understanding of the technology among our teaching staff and set the groundwork for extending these tools to our students, prioritising teaching methods first. We had early insight that students were already engaging with these technologies in their personal lives but, pending clear guidelines on what is permissible with under-18s in the classroom, our immediate focus was on empowering our teachers with these tools through regular CPD sessions.

Our AI Ethics Group meets monthly to discuss and ensure alignment on any decision to adopt any edtech from the perspective of educational value, technical compatibility, and data protection compliance. Only through this process did we arrive at Google Gemini and Canva as the toolkit for our curriculum and administrative processes. We ensure a mindful and deliberate application of technology that  frees up human energy to focus on human C.O.R.E. skills—Compassion, Originality, Responsibility, and Empathy—as outlined by Gerd Leonhard. In an age where technology abounds, the need to focus on these skills has never been greater.

All staff members utilise Google Gemini, supported by a dedicated Prompts Document designed to help them with tasks ranging from the creation of lesson plans, explainers, starters, plenaries, simplifications, to the reanimation of voices from historical figures and critical theorists. This approach enables educators to conduct sessions where students delve into discussions with historical personas, thereby transcending conventional educational limits. Such engagements provide a distinct platform for students to probe, dissect, and weave complex theories into their learning in a dynamic and engaging manner.

An illustrative case of this application occurs within our childcare studies curriculum, where students engage with the technology to critically examine Lev Vygotsky’s theories, particularly addressing his alleged middle-class bias. Through these interactive dialogues, students scrutinise and debate Vygotsky’s perspectives, enriching their understanding and promoting an active interrogation of the material. This practice not only enhances their comprehension but also encourages a deeper, more reflective learning experience.

In our Staff CPD sessions we shared relatively simplistic GenAI tools like Snapchat’s My AI’s ability to craft assignments swiftly (complete with spelling mistakes so ‘my teacher doesn’t think it’s AI 😏’). It helped us continue a shift towards more authentic forms of assessment on our vocational courses. We now increasingly favour assessments that capture the depth and breadth of student understanding and engagement, such as witness statements, viva voce, blogs, podcasts and vlogs. This approach challenges both educators and students to redefine the value of learning.

We have recently embraced AI in our assessment strategies as a ‘thought partner’/ reasoning engine/ personal assistant, offering a balanced lens through which student efforts are evaluated against predetermined standards – again using prompts from our ‘Prompts Doc’. This controlled prototype (how we approach all new ideas) with the consent of adult learners revealed the extent of my own cognitive biases in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I found myself confronted by the stark reality of my inclinations to skew evaluations based on preconceived notions about a learner’s knowledge, evidence I had observed in other contexts, or even personal sympathy towards a student’s circumstances. The impartiality of AI in marking has been a mirror reflecting my unconscious biases, challenging me to address and rectify them. 

A significant benefit of our strategic AI integration has been the considerable time savings for our staff. By embracing the AI tools we have carefully selected and supported through extensive CPD training, our educators have reclaimed an average of 5.18 hours each week. We want our staff to focus more on creative curriculum development, developing their craft, innovative teaching practices, and more student interaction.

I am excited but I’m also increasingly mindful and concerned about how intimately GenAI’s are going to become enmeshed and entangled in our lives, from always-there personalised chatbots, to social media algorithms that our central nervous systems (and consequently our attention) will struggle to resist. 

However, we can only control what we can control in our own context with overwhelming emergent technologies, so helping our teachers understand how to use GenAI so they can then help our learners use this tech is where we are. We move forward with the aim to free up more time for nourishing and nurturing the human skills that AI can never replace while thoughtfully utilising its capability to enhance teachers lives.In doing so, we’re helping learners to use it intentionally and deliberately with support and guardrails that protect and develop their digital literacy and wellbeing.

Authors – 

Dr Jamie Smith, Executive Chairman C Learning.

Scott Hayden, Head of Teaching, Learning & Digital, Basingstoke College of Technology (BCoT).