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Given the circumstances under which generative AI has evolved, the convergence of AI and the classroom is inevitable--and PBL has a role.

Embracing AI for limitless learning potential

Given the circumstances under which generative AI has quickly evolved, the convergence of AI and project-based learning is inevitable

Key points:

When ChatGPT was released in November 2022, many educators saw AI as a threat, assuming students were going to use AI to cheat. And they did. But in our haste to identify the pitfalls of generative AI, we have obscured examples of how students have used it to explore new topics, help with projects, and nurture creativity and curiosity. 

With the landscape shifting so quickly, we can no longer ignore the fact that back to school is going to look very different this year. 

Headlines from the past several weeks serve as indicators of what’s to come: 

  • GPT4 passed the MIT Mathematics and EECS curriculum with 100 percent
  • Harvard has an official AI tutor for its computer science program 
  • Hong Kong is rolling out its first AI curriculum to middle and high school aged students 

It’s July. 

By September, generative AI will be ubiquitous for all people with high levels of connectivity.

Some critics argue that change isn’t inevitable, particularly given the decentralized nature of education in the US. But 90 percent of middle and high schools have put in place 1-to-1 computing programs, and 91% of students have a cell phone by age 14. The major search engines will have integrated generative AI in the next several months. Given these circumstances, the convergence of AI and the classroom is inevitable. 

Across the country, districts are erecting stopgaps to block AI—a response that will only negatively impact our most underserved students who don’t have ready access to the internet at home. 

Students are using AI. This trend will only continue with open access to chatbots. Rather than expanding district firewalls, what would it look like for us as educators to embrace AI to discover how much knowledge can be unlocked and curiosity sparked? 

Thought leaders have provided insights on how AI can be used to provide more effective pedagogy, while saving educators time, including the following seven suggestions for practical roles of AI in the classroom: 

  • AI tutor for increasing knowledge 
  • AI coach for increasing metacognition 
  • AI mentor to provide balanced, ongoing feedback 
  • AI teammate to increase collaborative intelligence 
  • AI tool for extending student performance 
  • AI simulator to help with practice 
  • AI student to check for understanding 

In a detailed analysis, Prof. Ethan Mollick outlines the pedagogical benefits and risks associated with each role of AI in the classroom, as well as prompts to explore the outcomes on your own. 

Not surprisingly, much attention has been paid to the role of AI as tutor with the beta launch of Khanmigo from Khan Academy and the de-evaluation of Chegg’s stock as prime examples of both high and low notes. But the possibilities of how to meaningfully implement AI as a tool to enhance learning outcomes are abundant, as Prof. Mollick’s suggestions attest. 

In the age of AI, content and knowledge become commodities. Now more than ever, we need to prepare students to evaluate and adapt concepts to look at them from novel perspectives. While subject-matter expertise defined the workforce of the past, in the future, students will need to be expert generalists–polymaths–to be able to use technology to innovate for tomorrow. 

Our focus must shift to strategies that challenge students to remain “the human in the loop” (HITL) to enhance learning outcomes with AI, teaching students how to create innovative solutions and formulate new questions that challenge outmoded, deeply ingrained ideas. 

Here is a persistent challenge we need to resolve: How do we help students learn how to recognize and navigate AI’s outputs, hallucinations, and bias? 

One approach immediately comes to mind: project-based learning (PBL). 

PBL and AI 

Adjusting learning based on an individual student’s need has been an educational priority for years. The once far-away dream of adaptive learning is now in our reach for every student thanks to AI. We have the power to amplify that dream to encompass a bigger opportunity that would positively transform education for each student–leveraging AI to scale implementation of PBL. 

Research has shown that PBL is an effective way to cultivate a “need to know” attitude in students. Students are motivated to deepen their understanding to solve problems that are meaningful to them. AI can support PBL by helping students: 

  • Brainstorm questions at the beginning of the project to hone the driving question
  • Generate research suggestions 
  • Restate research in simpler terms 
  • Develop project plans 
  • Prototype
  • Provide feedback 
  • Generate simulations

A.J. Juliani has already written The Complete Guide to Using AI in Project-Based Learning and Genius Hour to support teachers in the development of projects, as well as suggestions for how students can use AI to scaffold and structure their experience. As AI gains traction in the classroom, I expect to see more of such resources on the horizon for teachers. 

PBL transforms classrooms because students relate to ethical dilemmas and are driven by empathy to find solutions. When the intersection of ethics and empathy in PBL is met by AI, students are given a powerful toolkit to extend the reach of their real-world problem-solving to a global community. 

“The future of education is human led, purpose driven and technology augmented.” —Dwayne Matthews, Future of Education Strategist

As the countdown to September begins, I am excited by what the future holds for students in terms of how AI can provide more effective pedagogy and serve a purpose-driven framework that nurtures the development of life-long learners. 

While some may worry that GPT4 has passed the MIT Mathematics and EECS curriculum with 100 percent correctness, let’s shift the perspective. Few, if any, students could achieve 100 percent in that curriculum. But now, with the understanding of how to interact with AI, any student could. 

AI can level the field so more students have access to the tools they need to be the ethical and empathetic problem-solvers of our future. By actively involving humans in the loop, particularly educators, we can play a pivotal role in shaping AI’s development to eradicate systemic bias and transform AI into a force that genuinely uplifts and benefits everyone. 

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