Last week, I participated in a panel discussion with Jay McTighe and Tony Frontier on leading in an era of artificial intelligence. During the conversation, we discussed AI’s potential to transform education. Despite my optimism about the benefits of AI in education, the buzz online is focused on the exciting new AI-powered education tools and not on the transformative impact those tools could have on how we design and facilitate learning experiences to meet the needs of diverse groups of students.
The Danger of a Myopic Focus on AI Technology Tools
It reminds me of the early days of the edtech boom when I would attend the Computer Using Educators (CUE) and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conferences, and the most popular sessions had titles like “50 Tech Tools in 50 Minutes.” I remember questioning how effective those sessions would be at improving teaching and learning. Yes, attendees were exposed to a list of fun tools they might use, but they were not learning how to use those tools in service of strong pedagogical practices. That is the same concern I have now.
Scrolling through Instagram or TikTok, I see endless videos of teachers sharing AI-powered tools. They demonstrate the efficiency and simplicity with which these tools generate lists of questions, create quick assessments, and plan lessons or entire units. I can appreciate the excitement since lesson planning is a time-consuming endeavor. The piece of the design puzzle missing for me is how educators can use these AI tools to architect student-centered learning experiences that better meet the specific needs of learners.
We teach beautifully diverse groups of students with various skill levels, needs, language proficiencies, and learning preferences. Before AI, designing for learner variability was an arduous process that may have felt unsustainable. I remember facilitating workshops on blended learning models and universally designed learning to provide students with flexible pathways. One of the biggest hurdles I encountered working with teachers using the whole group, teacher-led, teacher-paced model was their lack of time to design. Despite the lackluster outcomes of the whole group model for teachers and students, most educators felt trapped in this one-size-fits-all approach because they didn’t have the time to design more equitable and student-centered learning experiences.
AI Should Elevate, Not Eliminate the Intentionality of Our Design
AI promises to simplify this work on several fronts, alleviating the pressure on teachers to spend hours designing lessons, providing feedback, and, in the not-too-distant future, accurately assessing student work. Yet, I want AI to elevate the teaching profession and empower educators to design with a higher level of intentionality (not less).
I don’t want AI to replace the human element of education; I want it to elevate it. While AI can significantly enhance educators’ ability to address specific learning needs, it’s crucial that we deeply understand our students’ unique requirements and preferences. This knowledge is essential to effectively harness AI’s potential in a way that truly benefits our students.
If we simply plug a standard or topic into an AI-powered tool to generate an activity, a set of depth of knowledge (DOK) questions, a vocabulary list, or an assessment, it saves us time. It doesn’t necessarily change the quality of the learning or improve the student experience.
We need to think of AI as a powerful thought partner, inspiring us to design with purpose and creativity in a fraction of the time we could have done this work before.
- Can we lean on AI to provide students with more agency, meaningful choices, and flexible pathways through the learning experience?
- Are we asking AI to generate exemplars, scaffolds, and other supports to ensure all students can access the learning experience?
- Can we leverage AI to find ways to make learning more interesting and relevant for our learners?
As great as AI tools are, they don’t know our students the way we do. As AI technology advances, the human part of the work we do designing and facilitating learning is what will make us relevant in education. AI can make an intentional educator almost superhuman in their ability to design effective and equitable lessons, but we must stay mentally engaged in the process. Similarly, using AI to churn out feedback is a wonderful way to support students, but we still need to actively engage with them and their work to understand their needs.
Harness AI to Become Architects of Student-centered Learning
I often compare our work designing student-centered learning experiences to the work of an architect. I like this comparison because it’s the architect’s job to design the blueprint, but they do not do the hard work of building the structure. It’s the contractors and subcontractors who do the heavy labor of constructing the home or building. In the same way, I want teachers to create accessible, inclusive, and equitable learning experiences that position students (not the teacher) to do the heavy cognitive lift of making meaning.
So, let’s consider an analogy. Think about an architect who is equipped with cutting-edge design software. While these high-powered tools enable the creation of innovative structures, it’s the architect’s deep understanding of the people who will inhabit these spaces that truly shapes a functional and meaningful design. Similarly, educators use AI tools to enhance their educational ‘blueprints,’ or the learning design. The technology offers efficiency and innovation, but it’s the educator’s knowledge of their students’ unique learning needs and preferences that ensures the educational experience is tailored to them and relevant. Just as a well-designed house must reflect the needs of those who live in it, effective educational design, enhanced by AI, must be grounded in a deep understanding of the students it serves.
Check out my other blog posts on AI, here.