Blackbeard, the Wright brothers and AI in education

In a few weeks, I will be enjoying a few days on the beaches of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. While looking for things to do with a few friends, two historical sites popped up in my reading stream that caught my interest. After some time, I realized that they also had an interesting analogy about the growth of AI in education.

Wright Flyer and Astronaut on the moon
Wright Flyer & Man on the moon

Kitty Hawk is the site of the first powered flight by the Wright brothers, way back in December 1903. Who among the summer holidaymakers of Kitty Hawk in 1903 could have envisioned a man flying in a contraption of his own making by the end of that year? Or within the lifetime of the youngest sandcastle maker on that beach, man would walk on the moon in 1969? Who in 2019, could have envisioned online learning and the emergence of AI in education to quickly become the norm?

AI in education is in a wild buccaneering storm now, without any heavy constraints, as evident with the dozens of new apps emerging on various sites on a daily basis. Assessment, Teaching, and Learning will be impacted by AI, that is certain. In what way, it is a bit harder to predict. Like the flying boom of the early 1910s, we will see this AI rush fall to earth as we will mostly see an AI “” boom and crash in the near future, as it can’t maintain the current rate outside of the short-term. In the meantime, we need to have the vision to identify and harness the best tools, just like the Wright brothers harnessed the winds and engineering to get the Flyer off the soft sand of Kitty Hawk. We need to identify where AI will benefit teachers and learners and where it will not. It took 66 years to go from a canvas plane to a rocket to the moon. Education in 1903 Ireland looked vaguely similar to the classroom of 1969 Ireland but who is able to predict the classroom of 2089

The other site is a bit more nefarious.

The Flag of Blackbeard Source:By User:Fred the Oyster – Angus Konstam, Blackbeard the Pirate, 2007, page 177, CC0,

Blackbeard is one of history’s most legendary pirates of all time, and the Outer Banks have the rare distinction of being his favorite plundering grounds, hideout, and home. Added to this was the fact that these barrier islands had ample hiding places, hidden by the tall oceanside dunes, protecting those ships under a black flag (or Sail). These navigable channels allowed pirate ships to stalk their victims without notice and make quick getaways after an attack.

The myth of Blackbeard is of buried treasure taken from the Spanish Main, but there is buried treasure in your student data. The gold of student performance (data grades, test scores, and other academic metrics), Learning analytics (how students interact with digital learning tools and resources), Behavioral data (student behavior, such as attendance records, disciplinary actions, and social interactions), and Demographic data (students’ backgrounds, such as their age, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status) which can all be processed by the algorithm. Data that is hard to dig out of a teacher’s roll book, in a pre-AI world, but “X” will mark the spot with machine learning crunching the data.

AI is a hungry beast, seeking data to train on and to predict with. Recently, I watched a video by Bella Adams from the University of Sheffield titled “#AmplifyFE – AI, Data, Ethics, and Beyond: Exploring key issues in education” on YouTube, and she made me think that we have not considered all the implications of this technology on education. Adams emphasized the need for careful implementation, continuous monitoring, skill development, ethical considerations, and collaboration within the education sector. It is worth the watch.

Ethics is a term not often heard among pirates, or until recently, in the ed-tech world. Sound men (and women) with stout hearts could be relied on to do the right thing for their students, but an algorithm does not have the heart of a teacher. Both the EU and UNESCO have produced documents calling on all to consider the implications of the use of AI. In this brave new world, the bad guys won’t be wearing an eye patch, tricorn hat, or a wooden leg.

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