Summer is a time for educators to do some learning, and there are plenty of conferences and workshops throughout the season. But one national event for teachers this month had a very unusual trait: It was started and organized by students.
The free online conference, called AI x Education, aimed at getting teachers at colleges and high schools up to speed on the latest AI tools like ChatGPT, and to encourage them to try to use them this fall. The students worked with no external funding, though Zoom donated use of its platform.
And educators showed up in force. More than 2,000 people attended at least part of the event, according to lead organizer Johnny Chang, an incoming grad student at Stanford University, with 90 percent of participants indicating they teach at colleges or schools.
It was the latest example of how AI is turning things upside down in education. After all, chatbots can suddenly spit out five-paragraph essays and other texts in seconds, once considered something that only humans could generate. And the fast-changing tech has now inspired students to spend part of their summer volunteering to make sure their instructors try AI for themselves and not simply throw up their hands in fear that students will use chatbots to cheat.
To the college students who led the two-day event, AI could improve education and make it more interesting — and could soon become key to many jobs they might take on after graduation. So they want their courses to help prepare them for this new world and to be part of developing ethical rules on how best to use AI.
“Once they know the limitations, they stop being so scared of these tools,” says Chang. “We’re encouraging educators in classrooms to try to implement it and use it in classrooms.”
To Chang’s point, plenty of professors remain concerned about the potential impacts of ChatGPT on academic integrity, even if they’re open to adopting the tools to improve teaching. Some of those instructors are spending their summer breaks giving their homework assignments a makeover, hoping to make them harder for students to outsource the work to chatbots.
At the conference, speakers included some big names in education and tech, including Khan Academy chief learning officer Kristen DiCerbo, Harvard University professor Chris Dede and Wolfram Research founder Stephen Wolfram.
The biggest concern discussed at the event was making sure students around the world have equal access to new AI tools — and that educators have access to training to use them effectively and ethically.
“Maybe some private colleges will have funding and resources and may have access to move quickly, but some others like public and two-year colleges won’t,” worried Chang. “Having access to these tools is going to be very essential.”
He said his favorite moment in the event was at the opening session, where participants said hello, revealing that educators and students had shown up from many countries, including Australia, Canada, Taiwan, Vietnam and many more.
An Unusual Invitation
For tech experts who spoke at the event, getting an invite from students to share their knowledge was a welcome change of pace.
“These students aren’t waiting around for some professor to decide if they can do something like this, they just did it,” said Dede, the speaker from Harvard, noting that he was “delighted” to get involved. In fact, student organizers first asked him to be on a panel at the event, and he offered to develop a new keynote talk for the event instead — if they were interested.
He gave that talk, titled “If AI is the Answer, What is the Question: Thinking about Learning and Vice Versa,” hoping to inject a nuanced view between doom and hype. While he noted in the talk that AI has new capabilities that could improve education, he also said that too many experts are arguing that the tech will soon be able to become self-aware, which he says is unlikely based on the way large-language models work, essentially using past patterns of writing to generate new text, word by word.
“It’s like a digital parrot,” he said in the talk. “A parrot doesn’t understand what it’s saying – people are impressed because it sounds like a person. But the parrot has memorized those words by interacting with people.”
But, he stressed in the talk and in a related blog post, educators and students need to be careful not to hinder learning by relying too much on the tools.
“Whatever we do with AI in education,” he said, “we don’t want to interfere with people learning to think by doing their thinking for them.”
Dede praised the quality of the conference overall, saying “what they came up with is a lot better than what I’ve seen many universities doing, frankly.”
And the professor said that even scholars are struggling these days with the ethics of when and how to use ChatGPT and other AI tools.
“I think many faculty have not sorted out what academic integrity is with this tech,” Dede said. For instance, he said he talked recently with one scholar who “said he used ChatGPT and had written 90 pages of his book with it.” If a student had said this, Dede acknowledged, he’d have “serious doubts.”
During the event, students themselves expressed that they and their peers can feel tempted to use the new tools as a crutch. For instance, when Parthiva Tamms, a rising senior at Dougherty Valley High School, in San Ramon, California, asked his high school friends how AI has impacted their academics, he got a mix of responses, he said in one talk at the conference. Some said they use AI to “handle busy-work that the school gives,” so he can “spend more time that he thinks is more important to his academic career,” even if some people might see using AI to get answers as cheating. But another friend, he said, felt like he abused AI “and that it has done almost all their work for them” and that they realized it can have a negative impact on their work. Others, though, said they use ChatGPT to make suggestions to make the essays they wrote better.
The students even put together a summary report from the event that they published last week — even though no one is giving them a grade on any of this.