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AI skills will determine students' future success.

Here’s why AI skills will make or break students’ futures

If students are going to tackle the jobs of tomorrow, they need AI skills today

It’s OK if you don’t know exactly what artificial intelligence (AI) is–but you need to learn, and quickly, because it’s already firmly ensconced in our lives, and AI skills are shaping the future lives and careers of today’s students.

AI has already fundamentally changed the way we “do” many things. For instance, most people talk about how the internet destroyed the entire chain of brick-and-mortar Blockbuster stores with Netflix, but this assessment isn’t exactly true–AI was behind that transformation.

“We talk about AI as if it’s coming,” but in fact, it’s already here, and it’s been here, said Joseph South, ISTE’s chief learning officer, presenting with ISTE CEO Richard Culatta during a CoSN 2019 session. “It’s not hype to say we’re behind the curve–we are behind the curve on this, in terms of preparing students for AI.”

Read more: 3 ways districts can use AI and AR

When we talk about AI, we’re talking about computer systems that demonstrate behaviors associated with human intelligence–the ability to plan, reasoning, learning, the ability to adapt, and social intelligence, to name a few. And because AI can demonstrate these behaviors and learn, it is poised to have a tremendous impact on the future of work.

“How does this impact jobs? Forty-seven percent of jobs are at threat of AI,” South said. “This means that 47 percent of jobs as we define them today are going to change.” Those jobs may not be eliminated, but they will definitely change.

This new AI-enabled world will require citizens and workers with advanced social and emotional skills such as empathy and leadership; advanced cognitive skills such as digital knowledge, computational thinking, and creativity; and advanced technology skills.

“When you put these together, you find new models of learning,” South said. “These competencies will help propel students into the future.”

Students need help to develop these AI skills

“The key to making all of this happen is that we have to have teachers able to have intelligent conversations about what AI is, what it means, how we work side-by-side with a robot–these are all conversations teachers need to be having, but aren’t,” Culatta said.

Case in point: General Motors predicts a worker shortage in 10 years, because the workers needed to build cars, which are essentially drivable AI machines, are in school today, but they are already not learning the skills they’ll need to fill those jobs.

“As we hear and talk more about AI, there’s more about how AI will do great things in the classroom,” Culatta said. “What keeps me awake at night is how we have careers to fill and problems that need to be solved, and we have a generation of people who will need to fill those careers and solve those problems–and we aren’t doing anything to teach them. The language of future problem-solving will be the language of AI, and we are not creating a generation of students that can understand this language.”

Read more: Why our district is investing in AI, AR, VR, and MR

Teachers need more opportunities to explore how AI skills are relevant to education and in their own classrooms. ISTE and GM partnered to create a course in AI explorations and their practical use in school environments, and the course walks teachers through basic AI concepts and gives them ideas about project-based learning with AI. 

“This is one of the ways we’re stepping up to make sure teachers are prepared to have these conversations,” Culatta said. “You don’t have to be an engineer or a computer scientist to have conversations about how AI can transform the workplace.”

It’s also key to get school and district leadership involved to make sure leaders and teachers understand why they need AI skills, because teachers can’t be empowered to harness AI if they don’t understand how it works and why their students need it.

“We need to make sure we aren’t being blinded by the flashiness of the AI tools themselves,” Culatta said. “We need to make sure we’re creating students who are able to thrive in the AI world.”

Schools, then, have to be able to reframe learning and focus on the skills that will help students be successful. Skills that are uniquely human will be more important than ever, because AI skills can’t replace the most human-centered skills.

“What’s going to be important is learning how to relate to each other, to work side-by-side with machines, and to personalize learning,” South said. “It’s a good time to be human, as long as we change learning to be more humane.”

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