The UK General Election - 4th July 2024

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The AI revolution: five key considerations for schools

Mari Downing

Account Executive

The explosion in the widespread availability of AI is already transforming our world at a pace arguably not seen since the Industrial Revolution. Although this transformation is impacting every sector in turn, it’s growing increasingly clear that education is an area where AI will have enormous potential to reshape everything.

PLMR’s Education practice held a webinar panel event on ‘Navigating AI in schools’, chaired by our Head of Education, Tiffany Beck OBE, and attended by key voices from some of the country’s most innovative multi academy trusts and leading educational technology (edtech) entrepreneurs. Panellists included Morgan Dee, Director of AI and Data Science, EDUCATE Ventures Research; Steve Taylor, CEO, Robin Hood Multi Academy Trust; Dr Jon Chippindall, CEO, TeachmateAI; and Neil Miley, Deputy CEO, Dixons Multi Academy Trust.

The event was an open forum for those in the sector to share their expertise, voice concerns, and identify the core challenges and opportunities that the tidal wave of AI technologies presents to educators and learners alike.

The topics discussed chimed with those that have dominated the wider conversation surrounding AI and education recently; supporting schools to make the most of the positive potential of AI whilst navigating the key considerations for ethics, as well as the broader frameworks underpinning curriculum and education policy. Here are some of the biggest themes covered:

  1. Upskilling staff

Although generative AI tools have been around for several years now, it’s clear that many teachers are still unable to reap the potential rewards these tools present. This is partly due to a lack of relevant training – or awareness around what’s available; inconsistent support for access to continuous professional development (CPD); and the nature of the technology itself. During our webinar event, panellists emphasised how AI tools and their capabilities are constantly evolving, making it nearly impossible to implement foundational training in AI for educators without it inevitably falling out of step with each subsequent advancement.

A solution highlighted during our panel event was harnessing the expertise and enthusiasm that is prevalent across the sector. Numerous individuals and schools are already working with AI in sophisticated and innovative ways, so tapping into this knowledge and sharing best practice through professional networks will be pivotal for educators in remaining topped up with the latest skills to use AI effectively.

Panellists also urged school leaders to engage in open dialogue with their colleagues, rather than making any assumptions regarding AI usage in their schools.

  1. Staff workload

It has been well documented that educators are struggling with seemingly ever-increasing workloads, particularly in recent years. Our panellists expressed optimism on how AI could mitigate these challenges by “doing the heavy lifting” for teachers.

This cuts across both pedagogy and administrative tasks, with AI being used to develop first drafts of lesson plans, student reports and analysis of attendance data. An overlay of teachers’ expertise and oversight will still be crucial, but with AI cutting down enormously on the level of repetitive tasks undertaken by staff, giving them the breathing space to focus on what truly matters; interactions with students and responding to their needs.

One of the major benefits of edtech solutions powered by AI is an increasingly ‘personalised’ learning journey for students, allowing them to learn in a way that is suited to their needs and interests. Currently teachers simply do not have the capacity to do this for every student, but AI is already being harnessed to create high quality learning pathways adapted to each individual learner.

  1. Ethical concerns

Ethical usage remains at the core of any discussion of AI technology; our panellists emphasised the crucial importance of openness and transparency which should underpin the implementation of any AI resource in the context of schools. They pointed to the importance of training in raising the whole school community’s understanding of the risks.

It is crucial that schools understand the purpose of engaging with AI, as well as what the platforms used are doing with data; many currently used models are not designed to be used with children. Much of this information – including any flaws behind the model – is not currently available.

Panellists also emphasised the importance of measuring impact and results to ensure schools are maintaining clarity of purpose; for instance, using these tools as a way of “turbocharging their thinking” rather than as a shortcut. This means that at all points, teachers and leaders should retain oversight of what is AI-generated before decisions are made or resources are fully rolled out.

Schools must also communicate openly with parents when AI may be used, with clarity around pedagogical purpose, data handling and how much time (if any) their children will spend using the tools themselves.

Having open dialogue with all key stakeholders, including parents, will be pivotal for schools in maintaining cogent internal AI usage policies – which panellists were clear all schools should be seeking to build. They pointed to Ofsted’s recent policy paper as a useful starting point in this regard.

  1. Curriculum transformation

Our panellists concluded that the current frameworks of curriculum and assessment will have to change. With the world around us – and indeed, the world of work – in such a state of flux, the way young people are prepared to enter adulthood must also change.

The increasing capabilities of AI will reform the workplace and the skills needed to thrive professionally; this means equipping them with so-called ‘soft skills’, such as the ability to think critically about the information with which they are presented. As with keeping teachers up-to-date with the latest tools and skills they need, students must be imbued with a lifelong curiosity and passion for learning in order to provide them with the resilience and flexibility to adapt as technology inevitably continues to evolve. The panellists emphasised the need to teach students about ethical usage of AI resources, as well as the science behind these tools, in order to guard against blind usage.

A key source of contention has been how assessment might change in response to AI; our panellists suggested that widely used submission platforms would have to adapt in order to flag content not created by students. Equally, it was suggested that AI might eventually allow for heightened sophistication in assessment, moving towards more innovative approaches such as ‘viva-style’ conversational assessments.

However, panellists also cautioned against “cramming the onus” into the school curriculum, given the widespread societal impact of AI; changes will be needed in more areas than the school curriculum in order to support young people to thrive.

  1. Policy and sector-wide reform

Although the Department for Education (DfE) has latterly begun to examine policies around AI usage in schools, our panellists had some clear recommendations for how this could be taken further. This included support for the procurement process, such as developing quality marks and a “tick-list” for schools to use, as well as case studies of in-school usage across different contexts (including primary, secondary and SEND specialist provision). Panellists also pointed to a need for funding support for schools to access potentially transformative technology, with cost remaining a prohibitive barrier to access for many.

Across the sector, educators are keen to see the DfE showcasing the great work schools and teachers are doing at a centralised source – our panellists commented on the inefficiencies of individual teachers and institutions “operating in silos”.

On a technical level, urgent concerns were raised regarding the use of students’ and schools’ data by platforms. Our panellists emphasised the importance of compliance and the need for the government to press large firms to be transparent about how data is being used.

Though some continue to dismiss AI as a passing fad, consensus is building that this technology will drive unprecedented transformation. It is critical that conversations continue to be held in order to detangle hype and mythology from fact. Working together to develop initiatives that tackle the concerns presented to schools through thought leadership and public affairs engagement with policy makers will be essential for the education sector to successfully navigate the AI revolution.

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