Dec 09 2021

How K–12 Schools Can Use Artificial Intelligence in Education

Understanding how AI works can help schools incorporate it into classrooms.

What role will artificial intelligence play in the future of education? For educators, AI can feel like an exciting development — or a terrifying unknown.

AI technology is advancing quickly and creating solutions once thought impossible. It’s widely available in various technologies and, in many places, already being integrated into the classroom. The pandemic spurred the development of educational technology out of necessity, including the development of AI. Suddenly, educators needed ways to obtain more information virtually.

“We were starting to work on AI during the pandemic, but it sped up because there was a huge demand for it,” says Mike Tholfsen, principal group product manager at Microsoft Education. “All these things were happening online, and teachers were saying. ‘I don’t know what’s happening in my classroom anymore.’”

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With educators busier than ever, Tholfsen says, the greatest benefit AI can offer them is time. AI programs can gather data teachers would traditionally have to gather themselves manually.

What Is Artificial Intelligence?

Trying to define artificial intelligence is a bit like asking about the meaning of life: You will get a slightly different answer from everyone. At its core, AI is an area of computer science addressing the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers.

Michelle Zimmerman, a classroom teacher, researcher and school leader at Renton Prep Christian School in Washington state and author of the book Teaching AI: Exploring New Frontiers for Learning, notes that psychologists and neurologists in the field don’t even agree on what counts as human intelligence.

The definition also changes over time. Not too long ago, simple calculators were considered AI, while the term now is associated with a variety of innovative technologies, such as those that power content filtering and endpoint security.

EXPLORE THE TREND: Here are three ways classroom use of artificial intelligence will grow in 2022.

Artificial Intelligence vs. Machine Learning: What’s the Difference?

Though not all AI involves machine learning, it is a popular subcategory of the technology. Machine learning refers to machines that process vast amounts of data and also have the capacity to get better at it the more they “learn,” Zimmerman says.

“You can train models with machine learning to improve things. An example is speech-to-text technology,” Tholfsen says.

“Machine learning needs a lot of data to train it to look for patterns and understand what it is looking for. The more data, the more refined or accurate the results. The results, though, are only as good as the data included,” Zimmerman says.

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How Can AI Be Used in K–12 Education?

AI is already playing a role in many classrooms and has promising benefits that can be integrated now and in the future.

Intelligent tutors: What if an AI program could play the role of a teacher or coach, leading students through lessons and even motivating them? Nancye Black, founder of the Block Uncarved and project lead for ISTE’s AI Explorations program, says AI can support learners in a variety of ways. As a Columbia University researcher, she’s exploring how avatar interactions impact students. “There is some really promising research around the use of AI agents supporting girls and students of color, who are able to — in a lower-risk situation — ask for help and have social learning, even when they are learning independently,” Black says.

Reading workshops: If educators could host reading workshops around the classroom with each individual student, they would. Instead, AI-powered products such as Microsoft’s Immersive Reader can help educators focus on improving education for the 1 in 7 learners who have a disability, Tholfsen says. The product uses text decoding solutions to individualize instruction.

Michelle Zimmerman
Machine learning needs a lot of data to train it to look for patterns and understand what it is looking for. The more data, the more refined or accurate the results.”

Michelle Zimmerman Classroom Teacher, Researcher and School Leader, Renton Prep Christian School

Translation capabilities: Translation technology is improving quickly, and these tools include more dialects and language nuances every day. A teacher in New York, for example, used AI technology to host a virtual parent night for families who speak multiple different languages, Tholfsen says. Microsoft Translate allows the teacher to generate a code, which broadcasts to everyone connecting to the stream. It translates the speaker’s language into listeners’ languages without the necessity of a human interpreter. “Listeners can type or speak back in their languages, and it cross-translates, so when you type back in Spanish, it goes to me in English, translates to Mike in Italian, and to the person speaking Arabic or Chinese,” Tholfsen says. “It’s like the Star Trek universal translator.”

Low-vision accessibility: Accessibility checkers are helping educators increase access for low-vision students. “We use AI and computer vision to identify what is in an image and generate a caption,” Tholfsen says. “It’s a massive timesaver to do auto-captioning on images, so people are much more likely to make their content accessible.”

The implementation of AI tools won’t replace educators but will instead help them save time. The tech can be customized to fit any classroom, putting educators in control of the AI tools — not the other way around.

Ivan Bajic/Getty Images

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