Learning and generative AI: how technologies will change teaching

9 min

Generative Artificial Intelligence will soon become a significant presence in schools and various educational settings. Ideally, teachers would lead this process through well-defined and carefully planned methodologies. In the absence of such guidance, AI will assertively make its entrance through the students themselves. This calls for reflection on what the advantages and risks of a necessary adoption of AI might be to properly educate today’s students as well as tomorrow’s professionals. In the article, we will discuss how education could be improved by promoting productive interaction between learning and generative AI.

Generative AI will transform teaching and learning

When an innovation is so disruptive and involves such a large part of human existence, we cannot ignore it, and, above all, we cannot stand in its way. The discovery of fire has revolutionized our lives: we can cook food, warm ourselves, and melt materials. In order to benefit from these positive effects, we have also had to accept the risks: fires, burns, explosions. The same will happen with Artificial Intelligence (AI). And just as we have learned to manage fire, we will learn to manage this innovation.

While there are sectors that have thrown open their doors and integrated AI into their processes, there are also areas that are blocking its entry, most often out of fear of dealing with change. Education is one of them. The problem is that while teachers and administrative staff are not yet ready to embrace AI, students have been for some time. If we do not accept this fact, there will be a discrepancy that will have a negative impact on their learning.

In this case, change will have to occur on two fronts: on the one hand, it will be essential to update and innovate teaching methods; on the other hand, students will have to adopt innovative tools and methods to demonstrate their skills and knowledge. Currently, the scales are tipped on the side of students, skilled users of new technologies, who, without proper guidelines provided by teachers, tend to use AI illicitly rather than exploit it to enhance their skills.

Teaching should have already changed with the proliferation of new technological tools. If we used to have only one tool to learn from – a book – and another to show our learning – a notebook – we now have a multitude of tools – tablets, mobile phones, multimedia interactive whiteboards, PCs – that can enhance teaching by making learning faster and more constructive.

Generative AI has made these tools even more powerful by offering the possibility to personalize learning and make teaching more effective and engaging. This innovation, capable of generating text, images and interactive content based on vast knowledge bases, will radically change the way students and teachers interact with learning material.

How? By enhancing both roles. On the one hand, generative AI will make it possible to tailor educational pathways to the individual needs of students. It will do this by identifying their strengths and weaknesses and providing personalized resources that encourage autonomous and focused learning. On the other hand, the administrative burden on teachers will be reduced. We will be able to automate the preparation of teaching materials and the assessment of students. As a result, teachers will be able to focus more on direct interaction with students and classroom activities.

This will be the future. There will be no more classrooms as we know them today and no more static lessons learned from heavy textbooks. Places and tools will change, and the sooner we adapt, the sooner we will redress the balance between students and teachers in favor of the conscious and productive use of generative AI.

The first push comes from global institutions: UNESCO guidelines

When we are faced with a young innovation with great potential, it is necessary to give rules so as not to upset the pre-existing equilibrium but to accompany the change gradually by offering all the actors involved the opportunity to adapt and train themselves.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) has decided to intervene in this context. The aim is to guide member states in exploiting the potential of AI to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Education. The focus, as the communiqué states, is:

“ensure, at the same time, that its implementation in educational contexts is guided by the fundamental principles of inclusion and equity.”

Indeed, there are particularly sensitive aspects that require special attention and evaluation, which only a team of experts can provide. The focus is on:

  • The issue of regulation and ethics. It is crucial that the use of AI in schools is guided by sound ethical principles and clear regulations. UNESCO points out that although some countries have made progress, there is still a long way to go to ensure that AI is used with respect for fundamental human values, especially in education.
  • The importance of human-centered interaction. AI should not replace human interaction, but enrich it, ensuring that technological tools are used to support meaningful and personalised learning that takes into account the needs and motivations of students and educators.
  • Co-design. It is essential that teachers, students and researchers work together in the design and implementation of AI-based solutions to ensure that these technologies truly meet the needs of education and research, without neglecting the long-term implications.
  • The risk of plagiarism. The institution stresses the need for strategies to maintain academic integrity. This requires a collaborative effort to develop assessment methods that value uniquely human competencies.
  • Creative use of AI and skills development are key issues. UNESCO invites us to explore how generative AI can inspire new ideas and facilitate innovative educational and research processes, always with a keen eye on ethical risks and the need to train people to navigate and shape this new technological landscape.

Addressing these issues globally will ensure that the development and use of AI is regulated in a way that protects and promotes human values and ethics. Indeed, only through strong institutional commitment and careful regulation can we hope to reap the full benefits of AI in education and research. Moreover, this approach will ensure that the common good is served and will support a fair and inclusive future for all.

Learning and generative AI

What are the benefits of generative AI for teachers?

All that remains now is to understand concretely how the potential of generative AI fits into teaching and what the benefits might be for teachers and administrative staff.

The main benefit is certainly the personalization of learning. With generative AI, teachers could create teaching materials that adapt to the individual needs of each student. This approach, known as adaptive learning, will make it easier to understand the material and engage attention.

When we combine AI with technologies such as virtual reality or augmented reality, we have the potential to teach through interactive games and simulations. With virtual reality, we could explain history by taking students back in time. Topics learned in this way will become embedded in the learner’s mind, making memorization easier and more immediate.

Playful learning, also known as Digital Game-Based Learning, is an activity that already exists in some educational contexts. In practice, thanks to technology, the content of a lesson is translated into a game aimed at achieving a specific learning outcome.

In fact, contrary to what it may seem, play is not just entertainment but requires concentration and an active approach. Physical and mental stimulation is required to achieve the goals of play, and much more effective comprehension processes are activated. In addition, it greatly improves students’ perception of school, which is no longer seen as a boring and tiring place, but as a stimulating environment where they enjoy learning.

However, the potential of generative AI is not yet exhausted. The creation of educational content and the correction of tests could be automated. This would give teachers more time for direct interaction with students, personalized support, and in-depth study of topics.

Another major benefit is the accessibility and scalability of educational resources. With generative AI, teachers can easily adapt and extend educational materials to meet the needs of heterogeneous classes, including students with special needs or who speak different languages. This democratizes access to quality education, making it more inclusive.

Initially, opening up classrooms to such change may seem onerous in terms of the training required of teachers. And certainly, the first approach will not be for everyone immediately, but even here, generative AI offers valuable support. Teachers’ and administrators’ training can also be customized or supported by chatbots. In this case, not only is the achievement of specific goals guaranteed, but also continuous updating.

What are the benefits of generative AI for students?

The benefits of AI for teachers will inevitably be felt by students. While the personalization of teaching through AI will make teachers’ jobs easier, students will have learning paths tailored to their individual needs. Understanding each student’s strengths and weaknesses will make learning smoother and results better.

Another argument in favor of using AI is the flexibility it brings: access to learning materials anytime, anywhere. Today’s students lead much busier lives than a few generations ago. Between sports, English classes, and various further education courses, they find themselves learning in different places and at different times. With AI, learning becomes more compatible with different lifestyles.

In common with the benefits of teaching, there is also the playful dimension. Current technologies allow us to turn part of teaching into a game. In this way, students who have greater difficulties related to concentration abilities or are less motivated find themselves stimulated with an activity that is different in methods but equally effective.

And what happens if I realize at home that I did not understand a part of the lesson? If we train generative AI to answer the most frequent student questions, we could offer them clarifications 24/7, ensuring constant support in their studies. Moreover, doing tasks on AI platforms also means having immediate feedback, allowing for immediate reflection on mistakes made.

Let’s move to an example of distance learning. Video learning combines videos and texts, making the learning process intuitive, personalized, and respectful of the student’s time. The student can decide when to pause the video to take notes or review a part to solidify their understanding of the topic.

All these aspects make education inclusive and the teaching materials scalable to meet different educational needs. Not only that, it also makes students proficient with digital technologies for purposes that are not strictly related to entertainment.

If we integrate generative AI into education, we provide students with the tools to face future challenges, educating them on the conscious and beneficial use of emerging technologies. Click To Tweet

What are the risks of generative AI in education?

Before discussing the potential risks of improperly integrating AI into teaching, a clarification is necessary. The aim of this article is not to show how teachers’ work could be replaced by technologies or smart chatbots. Rather, teachers’ knowledge, combined with human traits of empathy and the ability to emotionally engage a class, are essential in the delicate environment of young minds’ learning.

The purpose of showcasing possible AI applications in education is to encourage teachers and administrative staff to leverage these technologies to make a significant leap forward. Doing so with awareness also helps us understand how to circumvent all potential risks associated with the improper use of AI.

Plagiarism: a strategy to prevent AI-generated texts

Obviously, the biggest and most complex risk to counter is plagiarism. Until the spread of ChatGPT and the entrance of generative AI, it was somewhat possible to expose copied texts, but today it’s almost impossible. AI generates different texts even from similar prompts. So, how can one tell if an assignment was completed by the student or entirely generated by software? By assessing the student in class or through direct comparison.

Teachers who have accompanied students over the years know the potential of the person in front of them. Moreover, when asked for critical commentary on the presented text, they can understand in a few minutes whether the student has full knowledge of the text or if it’s copied. Therefore, classroom presence and oral interaction remain crucial aspects of this work.

It’s more complex for a university professor to understand which parts of a thesis were copied, but we are witnessing a proliferation of anti-plagiarism software that will soon help us avoid this too.

However, to prevent plagiarism and stimulate students’ critical thinking and creativity, an approach that encourages them to connect the study material with their personal experiences, opinions, or the current context can be adopted.

For example, instead of assigning a classic essay on a historical topic like “The Causes of World War II,” one might ask: “How have the decisions made during World War II influenced the world we live in today? Cite specific examples you see in your community or in current politics.” This type of assignment encourages students to conduct historical research but also requires personal and critical analysis that cannot be easily copied from existing sources.

This approach not only reduces opportunities for plagiarism but also promotes important life skills such as critical thinking, analysis, and the ability to link information from different sources and contexts. By encouraging students to explore and reflect on their ideas, their unique perspective is valued, making each work truly personal and original.

Loss of students’ critical abilities: how to keep curiosity alive

From plagiarism, we connect to a much more serious risk: the loss of students’ critical abilities. Dependence on devices and platforms that provide immediate answers and pre-packaged solutions can reduce opportunities for students to engage in deeper, analytical thought processes. This phenomenon can manifest in several ways:

  • with difficulty distinguishing facts from opinions;
  • through a lesser inclination to question received information or to look beyond appearances;
  • with a reduced ability to make independent judgments based on reasoned evaluation of available evidence.

How to avert this risk? With the active intervention of teachers. Their role should be to recreate learning environments that encourage curiosity, reflection, questioning, and analysis. Only by stimulating interaction and rewarding critical reasoning and creativity can the enthusiasm of students immersed in a digital world be reignited.

Remember, future professionals will continue to be educated in school contexts, and hindering the entry of technology into learning spaces means finding young people entering the workforce increasingly unprepared. Technologies are meant to empower us, and knowing them means learning to manage them so that they lighten our work and improve our performance in relation to the one variable we could never change: time.

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