Digital technologies are on the rise in schools. Now, with teacher burnout, student mental health crises, and school violence weighing heavy on the national consciousness, many educators are wondering whether digital technologies that use artificial intelligence (AI) can help. Schools around the globe are already using AI technologies to enhance the learning experience for the students in their care.
Still, AI doesn’t enter the classroom without concerns. The growing use of AI in school brings up questions explored on the MIT podcast “In Machines We Trust”: Namely that, once in use, AI tech works 24/7…but who watches the machines watching the kids?
Theoretically, it should be part of our responsibility as educators—so let’s learn more about AI in schools: the good, the bad, and the safeguards we need to empower students and teachers.
When humans train a computer to complete a specific task independent of the humans that created it, the result is called artificial intelligence or AI. Because such machines are mimicking human perception and decision-making abilities, it is called “artificial” intelligence in contrast to humans’ “natural” intelligence.
This digital technology can be used across a wide range of industries. If you’ve ever interacted with a chatbot or used real-time translation tools, you’ve likely interacted with AI. The machines process large amounts of data to “learn” how to do, and ultimately complete, the task in a faster and more efficient way than humans can.
Naturally, computers are trained using human datasets—for example, chatbots process questions and conversational snippets from real people and surveillance technologies process billions of photos of human faces.
This also means AI technologies reflect human biases. For example, many technologists have concerns about how AI can be trained (intentionally and unintentionally) to use derogatory language or discriminate against marginalized groups.
Here are a few ways AI is being used in schools so far.
To enhance classroom learning
AI software can be used for “smart” content creation, by consistently upgrading learning materials, or serve as a digital tutor that tailors content based on students’ strengths and weaknesses. In the future, students may enter the metaverse to learn in an entirely new and interactive way.
To make learning more accessible
AI technologies can be used to help students with disabilities, like visual or hearing impairment, learning disabilities, and language barriers; for example, by allowing students to use screen readers or real-time translation.
To improve testing and assessment
Using natural language processing, AI can support teachers by scoring assessments and allowing teachers to provide smaller-scale assessments more frequently, which has been shown to benefit students.
To (potentially) prevent student crises
Digital monitoring technologies allow administrators to set up an “early warning system” on school-issued devices that flag words suggesting violence, bullying, mental health crises, and more in student emails, Google Workspace, Office 365, and optionally, social media.
The school security industry grew massively during the pandemic, and U.S. schools have now spent nearly $3 billion dollars on school safety solutions like cameras, metal detectors, and digital monitoring software.
The podcast episode “Who watches AI watching students?” from the MIT podcast “In Machines We Trust,” explores digital monitoring technologies in schools. It begins with an anecdote about how digital monitoring software intervened in a student’s suicide attempt after flagging content in a Google doc, where the student had recorded thoughts of self-harm, and saved their life within 15 minutes.
In addition to monitoring student mental health, schools may also choose to use the technology to monitor for indications of planned acts of destruction, bullying, or other violence, from the ‘Devious Licks’ TikTok challenge to school shootings.
Unfortunately, journalists have found, companies that offer this software do not conduct auditing or analysis to see if the technologies disproportionately flag some students over others.
Here are just a few pros and cons of AI in schools—there are many more.
✔ Pro: AI could address some of the biggest challenges in education today.
According to UNESCO, AI can “innovate teaching and learning practices [...] and ultimately accelerate the progress towards SDG 4,” or providing quality education for all learners.
✖ Con: AI technologies are poorly regulated.
The growth of the technology has outpaced policy debates and regulatory frameworks, which are just starting to catch up. For example, the reigning Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (1974) in the U.S. is better-suited to paper records than digital data storage.
✔ Pro: Can help prevent student tragedies.
The founder of the company whose software was used to intercept the above student’s suicide attempt has said that in 2021, their software flagged 10.1 billion items, 200 million of them concerning. The company’s algorithms eliminated innocuous uses, including phrases like “shoot hoops,” leaving 40 million items for human review. This process, the founder says, prevented 1400 student deaths by suicide alone.
✖ Con: It’s difficult for administrators to make informed decisions on AI.
In theory, administrators have control over what words to monitor, but this can sometimes backfire. For example, the software has repeatedly flagged words from school materials like “kill” in To Kill A Mockingbird, or caused trust issues with students who were “outed” to their parents for discussing LGBTQ+ issues in chats they believed were private. This can keep students from feeling safe at school and coming forward when they need help.
✔ Pro: AI makes education more “universal.”
AI inherently learns from the inputs it gets from students and teachers. When students have broader access to technologies that can meet them where they’re at in the learning process, from learning gaps in a specific subject to learning disabilities, they can learn better. Not to mention, AI can fill in the gaps for students with accessibility needs.
✖ Con: Students’ civil liberties may be at risk.
Because there are no clear guidelines for how companies provide, or administrators implement, AI tools, some affected families have begun to see the software as “spyware.” The technologies are now being investigated at the federal level; after releasing a 14-page report in October 2021, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have determined that edtech student surveillance platforms need urgent federal action to protect students; for example, how their data is stored and how schools can control for AI bias towards/against students.
If you currently use, or plan to use, digital monitoring software or other AI-fueled tech in your school, here’s what others like you are considering:
- Are students and parents in your school district aware of how the technology can or will be used?
- Does the software sufficiently protect student privacy?
- How will you define what uses are harmful or concerning?
- Do the advantages of the technology outweigh the disadvantages?
- Can it provide an effective identification system of violence, bullying, or mental health issues among students?
- Will outputs of the technology be used in student discipline? How and why?
Though this software is typically installed on the school devices, like tablets and laptops, given to students, it can also run on the personal devices of parents and students who open homework or messages without their knowledge.
School administrators should communicate the digital monitoring tools they choose to use and how they choose to use them with those they affect.
AI use is changing the face of education, the way it is changing other industries like marketing, HR, and policing.
In schools, AI has the potential to act as a support, a facilitator, and an accelerant. As long as it makes the role of educators easier and empowers student learning instead of causing roadblocks or mistrust among the student body, it can play a positive role in schools.
Need mental health staff on hand to complement digital technologies? Reach out to fill vacancies for your school.