With AI, we’re through the looking glass


In “Through the Looking-Glass,” Lewis Carroll’s sequel to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the author warns us to beware the Jabberwock. If he were writing today, he would probably warn us to be leery of artificial intelligence, with “jaws that bite” and “claws that catch.” The big difference is that AI has escaped the realm of fantasy.

The National Education Policy Center warns against the use of AI in schools. Its new report, “Time for a Pause: Without Effective Public Oversight, AI in Schools Will Do More Harm Than Good,” examines the dangers of the increased use of AI in public schools.

The report reveals the hypocrisy of major tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Meta, which call for slowing the development of AI while regulations are developed, while at the same time trying to curtail government regulation and integrating AI into their programs. The NEPC believes that with public education being “essential to democratic civic life,” the “wholesale adoption of unregulated AI applications in schools poses a grave danger to democratic civil society and to individual freedom and liberty.”

While advocates for AI “claim that it will transform teaching and learning for the better,” NEPC believes it is more likely that integrating AI into curriculum and pedagogy will have a negative effect on learning, as it “degrades the relationship between teachers and students,” and both are “forced to become involuntary test subjects in a giant experiment in automated instruction and administration that is sure to be rife with unintended consequences.”

The authors of the report warn that “integrating AI into schools’ administrative processes locks schools and districts into an expensive ‘stack’ of corporate tech systems” with the result that funds will not be available to support student learning. They suspect that AI “exacerbates violations of student privacy, increases surveillance, and further reduces the transparency and accountability of educational decision-making.” They believe that “in the absence of responsible development, proper evaluation, or regulatory oversight — untested, opaque AI models and applications will become enmeshed in routine school processes.”

The report included a series of recommendations. School leaders, it said, should pause in the adoption of AI applications pending legislation to ensure effective public oversight and control of its application in schools. In addition, federal and state policymakers should prohibit schools from adopting AI-based educational applications until appropriate regulatory structures are established. To achieve this, government authorities need to stop pressuring schools and school districts to produce reams of data, much of it unnecessary.

The NEPC wants state and district educational officials to establish independent review committees to ensure the quality of digital educational products used in schools, and allocate sufficient funds to “allow teachers to spend more time with their students.” Smaller class sizes will be much more effective than AI in improving student learning outcomes.

There is widespread debate on the impact artificial intelligence programs will have on education. As the use of online programs like ChatGPT expands, schools and teachers will have to figure out strategies to address student use. According to one report in January 2023, almost 90 percent of students surveyed admitted that they were already using ChatGPT for homework assignments, and 48 percent confessed that they had used it to complete an at-home test or quiz.

Instructions on how to use ChatGPT and other AI programs to write assignments and not get caught are all over the Internet. I admit that if I were a high school student today, I would be using ChatGPT or other AI apps, especially for busy-work assignments.

For me as a teacher, the biggest problem with apps like ChatGPT is that they eliminate thinking. Teachers want students to gather evidence and evaluate it. ChatGPT does the thinking for you. All students have to do is slightly modify the text it provides and hand it in as their own work, a form of plagiarism that is hard to detect.

The NEPC report was written by Ben Williamson, of the University of Edinburgh, and Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger, of the University of Colorado Boulder. The National Education Policy Center is housed in CU Boulder’s School of Education.

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University.