How AI can level the playing field in learning and education

5 Oct 2023

Patricia Scanlon giving her keynote speech at the Learnovation Summit in Aviva Stadium. Image: Garrett White

Patricia Scanlon, Ireland’s first AI ambassador, thinks that AI can make learning more efficient and accessible if we rethink our education system.

AI is rapidly transforming almost all spheres of human activity; from the way we work and the way we create content to even the way we find novel solutions to age-old problems.

While there is much excitement around what AI brings with it, some are also cautious about its implications on the future of jobs and the damage advanced AI can do if in the wrong hands.

One such area of human endeavour that AI has already started to upend is learning. The power of generative AI is disrupting classrooms in schools and colleges world-over, with educators scrambling to devise policies to prevent the technology’s misuse.

Individualised help

But with every disruption comes an opportunity to makes things better. Patricia Scanlon, Ireland’s first AI ambassador, thinks that when it comes to the impact of AI on education, the novel tech can actually be used as a force for good in learning and development.

“There’s a lot of power in being able to take AI and level the playing field in some ways,” Scanlon said in her keynote speech to an audience of more than 350 people at the Learnovation Summit held in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin today (5 October).

The annual summit was organised by the Learnovate Centre, a learning technology research centre based in Trinity College Dublin.

“Not everybody has access to low student-teacher ratios, after school tutors, helpful parents at home, English as their first language – you can see how that more individualised help can really help in education.”

But it’s not just children in schools that can benefit from the equalising ability of AI technology. Adults, too, Scanlon said, can make the most out of LLMs [large language model] that can help them learn things they never had access to learning before.

“Maybe somebody never gets to go to college, but they can educate themselves to a certain point with AI. Not the point of a full format education system, but a tool to help and that’s where the productivity aspect comes in,” she explained.

“And then in the working world, AI can be hugely helpful – particularly for people with dyslexia. You’re levelling the playing field for people like that, who struggle to write in the blank page.”

‘Turn education system upside down’

But is the effect of AI on learning, especially for younger people and children, really such a bed of roses? Scanlon said there are ways in which these tools could be harmful to our development if we start to rely on it too much.

“We wonder if kids are ever going to be able to write for themselves or engage in critical thinking. Conversely, AI can help to ensure that integrity – but it’s going to take work,” she went on.

“You can use the LLM to create live questioning that somebody couldn’t possibly be prepared for, and change the questions based on the answers to drill downs someone’s knowledge.

“Then, together with a little bit of security and analytics, or maybe their style of writing or what they said before or what we know that LLMs produce, you can get to something more like an oral assessment or a defence of a thesis if you want, and AI can help that.”

According to Scanlon, the easy thing to do would be to ban AI. But it’s not necessarily the best way forward. What’s far more beneficial, she argued, is to “turn our whole education system upside down” and look at AI in a different light.

“It’s not going away, so we need to think about how we can use this tool to help with critical thinking, to help them [learners] progress in all aspects of teaching and learning.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic