Unlocking the Potential of AI in the Classroom: An Introductory Guide for Educators
Teaching is a rewarding yet exhausting occupation. It becomes our identity and we want to do the best for our students, but burnout is real. Most of the discussion around AI in education focuses on students, and results in requiring more work from teachers in the form of policing and learning new tools. However, AI can instead be a tool for teachers to improve the classroom experience and work-life balance simultaneously.
Can it be overwhelming? Sure. Does it have to be? Nope. We can continue to practice "small teaching" that has a big impact with AI.
There were a plethora of pedagogical and andragogical challenges before AI entered the foray. These are some of the exact places where we, as educators, can use AI to our advantage while serving our students.
It has the potential to give detailed insights into student progress which can transform the way we approach written assignments, and enables us to provide targeted support and guidance. Streamlining tasks such as lesson planning, emails, and rubric creation can free up teacher time to focus on helping students refine those ideas.
This isn’t just another overwhelming guide with too many ideas and examples. This guide is for teachers who are just starting to think about what an AI-enabled classroom might look like by putting it into conversation with a few core teaching goals that we all work toward.
This is just the beginning.
What Is AI Writing?
There are now several AI tools intended to help with graphic design, writing, presentations, coding, etc. that are throwing their hats into what feels like a dizzying race to become “the next best” in AI development.
There’s a lot of talk about AI replacing jobs and being a productivity wizard. There is, at the time of writing, a petition to pause the improvement of AI for six months. Italy has banned ChatGPT, and it often feels like there is too much to keep up with to even get started.
Regardless of where it goes, as it stands right now, we can create time-saving, innovative, and personalized learning experiences for both students and teachers alike.
We’re going to focus specifically on AI writing. These are tools that use natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning algorithms to create written pieces through interactive conversation. Basically, the computer is trying to anticipate what a human would say in any given situation based on what actual humans have written in the past. We’re quantifying the qualitative, which, as the researchers in the room know, can get you into trouble if you’re not careful.
How can it help us?
Teaching is a time-consuming, but rewarding, labor of love. We teach because we care about our subject and our students. But it’s still labor and for those of us with high course loads, it can feel crushing, especially over the last few years. The following are some ways AI can alleviate, instead of adding to that list.
- AI can help you create and improve teaching materials like assignment prompts. For example, you can input an assignment prompt you know hasn’t quite hit the mark or produced the deliverables you're looking for and ask AI for feedback based on the things you’re looking for and what you know is going wrong. It is crucial that you give it enough information to go on, but it saves time and gives you space to think about the prompt more critically.
- It can be used to help you create rubrics for your assignments or improve the ones you have by asking it to give feedback on your current version, produce its own version, and/or compare the two. It can help you craft emails or sentence starters for your feedback templates. We all know students aren’t the only ones for whom a black page has led to procrastination and ill use of time.
- AI writing tools can help us create lesson plans with interactive elements and outlines (or even coding) for multimedia elements. For example, AI can generate code on a specific topic with interactive activities for a slide deck that you input and then turn around and use in class. The right AI writing tools can also help us work through our own research.
How can it help us help students?
Understanding the affordances and constraints of AI can (with the help of a good prompt) help us, as educators, to improve teaching and learning in our classrooms by enhancing many of our common pedagogical goals, such as:
- Fostering engagement
- Encouraging dialogue
- Building Community
Using AI Writing tools to generate a starting point, run ideas through, and as a general time saver gives us, as teachers, space to better support students in other ways.
Student engagement is an ever-moving target because our students are human. However, when we create engaging activities and applications, we’re more likely to create spaces students want to engage in. How can AI help with this? We can use AI to generate new activities or improve old ones.
For example, you might take your journal prompts for your freshman writing class that you feel/know/have been told don’t quite generate student engagement with the content and ask AI for feedback. Does that mean AI knows better than you? Nope. Take its advice the same way you’d take the advice of a colleague (a friendly one) - as feedback that you can decide to use or reject.
We can also have students use AI writing to foster engagement. The same benefits we can reap from saving time so we can work on progressing ideas further can foster student engagement by saving time that might have been spent on organization or working with keywords that won’t get them what they need.
We can ask AI to generate thought-provoking questions geared toward a specific student population. We can ask it to give feedback on a course-relevant topic in real-time during class, stimulating debates that deepen understanding. We can ask AI to give us all sides of a debate and then, as a class, discuss the drawbacks, convincing bits, and “uh, that’s just not right” elements of the response.
For example, during class, you might ask AI to write a 500-word argument for/against the use of technology and social media in the classroom (or your favorite debate topic of choice) and ask students how, as a class, you might create a persuasive piece from both arguments that focuses on a solution.
What do previous examples have in common? Even though we don’t always do it, our teaching is better when we collaborate with others, ask for feedback, and change things up once in a while. AI can save us time and energy by making suggestions that give us space to be more creative in the ways we approach our content areas with students.
It can also be used to facilitate group work by helping students breakdown tasks, guide them through the research and writing process when you’re not available, and give them more time to have the discussions that can help move their projects forward. For example, students working on a collaborative report together, can have AI help divide up tasks based on their strengths, plan out the smaller tasks based on the larger goal, and assist with the writing of some of the sections.
While AI offers numerous benefits, it's crucial to consider and address potential challenges. Here, we’re just going to focus on the three that feel most pressing:
- Ensuring student safety and privacy. Right now, AI writing tools are using every bit of data entered into them. There are plenty of concerns around asking students to submit their work to 'the machine.'
- Prompt engineering. Yup. It’s a new term and a new job, in some places. It means how the heck do we get what we need out of AI? There’s been plenty to laugh about with many of the AI responses, but as most people have found, ask it the right thing in the right way and it can be very useful. This means making prompt engineering part of the academic conversation.
- Policies and academic integrity. Openly embracing AI, even tentatively, doesn’t mean that we can throw out institutional policy. It can be difficult to balance institutional guidance and policy and crafting syllabus statements that articulate our approaches (or lack thereof) to using AI in the classroom. Is your institution asking for you to use AI detectors, despite their inaccuracy? Are you using them because you’re not sure how else to enforce academic integrity?
Overcoming these will take careful consideration of which tools we use.
Arguing for Engagement Vs Deliverable
One of the ways that some facets of education have approached teaching in the past can actually help with the balance of academic integrity and AI. At PowerNotes, they call it proof-of-work, and the idea is fleshed out in detail in a previous article on moving beyond AI detection, but the proof-of-work concept is not a new one to education - you’re having students show engagement with the process you’ve assigned.
If you have a writing-intensive component to any of the classes you teach, then you’re well aware that it’s a tall order to track that student work. If you’ve been able to work with a writing coach across the curriculum team, then you also know that scaffolding is important to student writing. It’s a difficult balance of tracking and giving feedback, but having your students track the work they’ve done (or in the case of PowerNotes, work is automatically recorded) can be a useful solution.
During student research, these inputs are securely recorded by PowerNotes and show up as highlights, annotations, topics, and citations in the student’s activity log. As a professor, you’d have access to this body of work for each of your students. This approach also gives you, as the teacher, more space and time to respond to the places where students need guidance before those things become a bigger concern.
With a proof-of-work approach, you're tapping into the power of engagement-based assessment. This approach delves deeper into student understanding, allowing educators to appreciate the full scope of their students' thought processes. With a tool like Insight from PowerNotes, educators can see real-time engagement on their LMS-created assignments. This instant feedback empowers them to tackle any issues head-on and integrate feedback seamlessly into their work. As a result, students can enjoy a more holistic and proactive approach to the learning process.
Assessing students' engagement could be the first step to paving the way for fair and inclusive evaluations in the AI era. By focusing on the process rather than the final product, teachers and students can enjoy better learning outcomes and a vibrant culture of collaboration.
AI has immense potential to revolutionize the learning experience in the classroom, benefiting both students and educators. Although challenges exist, they should not deter schools from exploring ways to safely implement this new technology. With careful planning and execution, AI can become an invaluable asset in creating engaging, dynamic, and efficient learning environments.
Visit our Insight page to learn more about PowerNotes' approach.