Reimagining Education in the Digital Age
Almost every big technological breakthrough has triggered as much worry as it has excitement, especially in the field of education, which has tended to adapt slower than other industries.
“Any change in education has caused fear,” explains Darren Wise, Director of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) at Aiglon College. “When the internet first started being used in schools, people were worried about kids using it to access bad things or for plagiarism. Even the calculator was seen by some as a terrible thing.”
With the speed of recent digital developments, it’s no wonder that fears have once again been ignited. Just last month, Open AI announced that its latest version of Chat GPT, a large language model-based chatbot, will be able to have voice conversations and interact using images. The technology is changing faster than regulators can keep up.
In the face of these developments, many schools have attempted to implement bans, something Mr Wise thinks is futile. “Most people respond by saying: we’ll just block them,” he says. “But the most important thing educators need to know is that they can’t stop this. Our students are already using things like Chat GPT. We instead have to think, how can we get the best out of these technologies?”
Learning the Tools of the Trade
At Aiglon, getting the best out of these new digital tools starts by educating the educators. “We have five learning strands that our teachers can sign up for, one of which is artificial intelligence (AI). So we introduce them to some of the AI tools, we give them a space where they can experiment with them and talk about it with their peers — an art teacher might be talking to a mathematics teacher,” Mr Wise says. “It means they can come up with their own ideas on how to integrate the technologies into the classroom, then they do it and we all review it together.”
It also means creating an open-minded environment where students are encouraged to experiment with these new tools, rather than having to use them surreptitiously, says Jack George, Assistant Head, Discovery Years (Years 7-9) Coordinator. “We’re working really hard to make sure it’s not this clandestine thing that students do when they go back to their boarding house or that they use to do their homework,” he explains. “For example, we’ve been giving students prompting lessons, and they’ve been learning how to make AI chatbots.” There are plans to formalize this curriculum with the hiring of a teacher who will specialize in AI and robotics.
Transforming Education for the Better
But what about the well-documented fears that technologies like AI will make it easier than ever to cheat? Overblown. “Research suggests that students don’t want to cheat,” points out Mr Wise. “And actually, if you talk to young people about the use of AI, they want to do it in a fair and sensible way.”
More importantly, he thinks, these fears might be more of a reflection on our education systems, and its need for reinvention. “If a teacher is worried that someone can use AI to cheat in their work, then they’re setting the wrong work,” Mr Wise warns. “Machines are great at knowledge retention. But students need more than that to thrive today.”
Indeed, far from being an existential threat to the education sector, the digital revolution could be an opportunity to reflect on what’s working — and what’s not — and to set about transforming schools for the better. “AI is a bit of a mirror, so it’s really made us stop and think, hang on, what works in terms of assessment, for example,” Mr George says. “So we’re having to reimagine how we test students — thinking about more of a viva voce approach to assessments, even from the lower years, where students will have to show they can contextualize their answers and justify them in a human situation.”
It’s these types of skills — and not the simple regurgitation of facts — that students will need to excel in both their exams and life, Mr Wise thinks. “If you look at the skills students are going to need when they leave school, it’s not going to be remembering a load of knowledge to pass an exam; it’s more important that they learn how to be flexible, adaptive, critical thinkers,” he says. “The education sector has got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine what learning looks like.”
Preparing for the Changes Ahead
Aiglon is determined to seize this immense opportunity, but doing so means not just embracing the changes: it means anticipating and preparing for what might be coming on the horizon.
“The Chat GPT revolution has taken a lot of educators by surprise, and they were caught on the backfoot,” says Mr George. “Some said, this is scary, let’s ban it, others said, this is great, let’s embrace it. The difference with our approach at Aiglon is that we are neither attempting to ban it nor uncritically embracing it; we are instead thinking further ahead and asking ourselves what the future holds and what we need to do today to prepare for that.”
On a practical level, that has meant carrying out enormous infrastructure changes. “We had quite an old-fashioned setup,” remembers Mr Wise. “It’s taken two years to get to a place where we have a flexible, modern IT infrastructure: we’re cloud-first, everyone has a laptop, we installed new fibre optic cables that connect all the buildings. We’re in a good position for what’s coming.”
Practicalities aside, it has also involved a lot of blue-sky thinking about the role technology can and should play in the education sector. “You can’t introduce new technologies into the classroom just because they’re there,” Mr George says. “All too often, schools use tech as a gimmick.” The ambitions here are bigger. “We’re actually thinking of real-world ways we can properly integrate these technologies into our school, and into education more broadly. This is like a blank slate moment, where we can throw out everything that doesn’t work and seek to introduce things that do.”