Student Learning with AI Systems and Teacher Support

Interviewed by Deblina Pakhira

Throughout this post, Deblina Pakhira, research manager of Digital Promise’s Learning Sciences Research, chats with Anne Leftwich and Min Chi about their visions for how artificial intelligence (AI) will be studied and implemented, as well as how AI can support educators, including their work at the Engage AI Institute.

Key Ideas:

  • Personal experiences can shape your professional career.
  • Guiding students through ethical discussions is an effective way to introduce concepts of computer science and AI. 
  • There is an opportunity to support educators by designing an AI system with robust student data modeling that is a “white box” and can be used efficiently. 
  • Experts at the Engage AI Institute envision collaborating with practitioners and diverse community members —  in the Institute’s research work and discussions.

Anne Leftwich: I’m a professor and acting chair of the department of instructional systems technology at Indiana University. My work focuses on how teachers relate to technology and its adoption in the classroom. This theme was prompted by my mother, who was a great educator but technology would always scare her a bit. Now, I’m mostly thinking about how we can support teachers to incorporate computational thinking, computer science, and artificial intelligence (AI) in their classrooms. 

Min Chi: I’m an associate professor in the department of computer science at North Carolina State University. I was fortunate to have wonderful parents and a great education, and that has helped me so much. It motivates me to improve other people’s career opportunities and their lives. My experience is in technical topics in AI, especially deep reinforcement learning. I use this to model students’ decision-making and to try to improve how AI systems can support students as they learn. I worry about AI, too. To build good AI, we need to more closely study how human teaching and learning work.

The Ethics of AI

Deblina Pakhira: What is fueling your passion for AI in general, but also as applied to education?

AL: For me, the big “aha” moment occurred when I was working with elementary school teachers on integrating artificial intelligence into life science activities. We observed that the topic of ethics motivated the teachers to learn the computer science concepts. Ethics wasn’t an add-on but rather an on-ramp.

Take for example the topic of self-driving cars. What if they make a wrong turn and something bad happens? This question led to more interest in how cars use sensors to know when to turn. It led to students generating great questions about computer science; questions they really wanted to know the answer to. This is so much more powerful than introducing computer science with the typical activity of getting the computer to print “Hello, World!”

MC: There are great examples that motivate students to learn about AI, like how do you teach a computer to use language fluently? It’s a really hard problem in AI and, because language is so important to human learning, it’s an important problem to solve to improve our AI systems that support student learning.

I know a lot about language fluency, but there are things I really want to learn from my colleagues at the Engage AI Institute. I want to learn more about how we can bring in social and emotional aspects, for example. Also, the teacher’s decision-making role in education is so important, and I want to learn more about that, so my AI systems work better in support of human teachers.

AL: You know I’d like to be one of Min’s students; there’s so much I could learn from listening to her. From my work, I know there’s lots to do together in K-8 education. But I also would like to know more about what we could do at the post-secondary level. I don’t know much about that.

MC: And your expertise on teachers is currently missing from my work. We have a lot of data models, but it’s a black box. How can we turn our AI models of student learning into a white box, where teachers can see inside and it can be helpful to teachers? What is the benefit of AI from the teacher’s perspective?

Supporting Educators Through AI Implementation

DP: What are some of your hopes and fears about your work at the Institute or about AI in education in general?

AL: When I think about the Institute, I realize we’re going to need a lot of data and that makes me nervous. How are we going to safely and ethically work with data on race, gender, ethnicity, and more? And it’s not just student characteristics like that, but also, what about different cultural contexts?

MC: I think we also need to be really clear that AI is not about replacing the teacher. 

AL: Right, we need to focus on the concept of supporting the teacher. And there’s too much focus on supporting teachers and students in drill-and-practice learning. We need to do better than that. We need to support teachers when they organize students in small groups that need additional assistance and when their lessons include challenging issues, like ethics.

My hope for the Institute is to involve diverse voices in the discussions, including involving more practitioners. I believe community members from different backgrounds can provide valuable feedback and insights on designing and developing our research products. 

MC: My hope is the Institute accelerates us all to learn quickly from each other, pick up new skills, and do better things with AI for learning.