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Preparing students for an AI-driven world

By Nicole Krueger
May 17, 2018
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Self-driving cars. Data mining. Robo-investment-advisers. Artificial intelligence has already begun disrupting entire industries, and it’s poised to completely transform the way people work.

As businesses across all industries adopt AI tools in droves, they’ll need employees who can use them effectively. The overall share of jobs requiring AI skills has grown 4.5 times in the past five years, and it will only continue to climb as the technology becomes more widespread.

“The world is evolving toward using AI for many different things,” says Yiannis Papelis, research professor and director of the Virtual Reality and Robotics Lab at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center. He compares the AI revolution to the rise of computers and their now-ubiquitous role in the workplace.

“Twenty years ago, having computer skills was special. Now having computer skills is commonplace. Twenty years from now, understanding AI will be commonplace.”

That’s why, he says, artificial intelligence needs to become part of basic technology literacy.

What’s the best way to teach AI?

As schools wrestle with questions around how to incorporate computer science into their curricula, they need to start factoring AI into the equation. Just like with computers, students can learn about AI on multiple levels — from basic exposure to the technology to developing proficiency with AI tools to understanding how the technology works and programming the tools themselves.

Depending on a school’s learning goals, there are two primary ways to teach AI literacy: from the top down or from the bottom up. Papelis favors the top-down approach, developing a K-12 curriculum with grade-appropriate lessons that start by defining what AI is and build from there. He admits, however, that it could pose a challenge for educators who are already have more content to cover than hours in the day.

When a separate AI curriculum isn’t feasible, teachers can use the bottom-up approach, incorporating AI tools into other subjects so students become accustomed to using the technology to support their work.

“You don’t change the curriculum, you just slowly expose them to AI over the long term,” Papelis says.

This could be as simple as creating a virtual assistant station in the classroom to use for gathering information during research projects. For younger kids, teaching AI could include practicing how to interact appropriately with tools such as Alexa. As they get older, they can learn how to hone their questions to elicit better responses.

Educators can also explore commercial or scientific applications for AI and then adapt them for classroom use. Chatbots, for example, aren’t hard to build using simple online tools. Teachers can build a chatbot for a specific lesson or teach computer science concepts by having students build them. One study on chatbots in the classroom concluded that they’re an effective tool for engaging high school students in CS.

As with any technology, the key to integrating AI successfully is to start with the learning goal and then ask how AI can help students get there. For example, “we want students to think about things,” says Hall Davidson, senior director of Discovery Education. “Build a lesson where AI helps them think about things.”

Teaching responsible AI stewardship

Today’s students face not only a lifetime of working side-by-side with AI, but also the responsibility of deciding how to use it.

“Like any other tool, people can misuse it,” Papelis says. “There’s a saying that to err is human but to really screw up, you need a computer. This applies a thousand times to AI. It can be used for good or bad.”

How will we distribute the wealth AI generates? How do we eliminate AI bias and guard against mistakes? How will AI affect our behavior and interactions? These are just a few of the ethical questions the World Economic Forum has posed about artificial intelligence.

As future stewards of this powerful technology, researchers argue, students need to be prepared to grapple with the ethical issues AI raises. But these types of conversations don’t have to be limited to lessons specifically about AI. Teachers can use any of the World Economic Forum’s ethical questions as a springboard for debate, encouraging students to think critically about the complex issues surrounding AI. Lessons related to digital citizenship, humanities or ethics can all include discussions on the technology’s implications.

“As we are looking at it now, any integration at all would be a success,” Davidson says. “What we really want is for kids to understand the power of this tool and find ways to use it that we wouldn’t have thought of.”

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.