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Learning to learn in the age of AI

AI can do well what we are educating our students to do – write essays, solve equations, analyse events, etc. What do we do now?
Last Updated : 14 April 2023, 20:02 IST

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ChatGPT’s prodigious accomplishments – passing the Wharton MBA exam, US Medical Licensing exam and four Law School courses -- are triggering a mini-crisis in university circles.

The prodigious bot even wrote a 2,000-word essay on social policy in just 20 minutes: “20 minutes to produce an essay which is supposed to demonstrate 12 weeks of learning,” exclaimed researcher Pieter Snepvangers, a graduate from the University of Bristol, who used the bot as an experiment to verify if students can use the software to cheat on their coursework.

Harvard’s senior researcher Chris Dede says ominously, “If you educate people for what AI does well, you’re just preparing them to lose to AI.” That seems to pinpoint the problem: most of our current education is focused on assessing, if not actually educating, students for what AI excels at. This includes “writing essays, using language and grammar correctly, solving equations, explaining scientific concepts, analysing data, writing on historical events, analysing current events from a social science perspective”, and more (as per its own admission when queried by the authors). No wonder, then, that while US schools have banned students from using ChatGPT, British universities are issuing warnings to their students and urgently reviewing how they can detect its use.

Even the so-called “indisciplines” of the fine and applied arts are now in AI’s crosshairs. Generative AI has already won first prize in a Colorado contest for its artwork; earlier, it was reported to have nearly won first prize in a Japanese literary competition. Creative platform Shutterstock has also launched its own AI image generator that, in their own words on their website, purportedly “allows anyone to create high-quality visuals by simply describing what they’re looking for — worry-free, one-of-a-kind, and ready in seconds.” A headache for instructors is that there is, as yet, no “visual plagiarism” checking tool or app comparable to the various options available to catch plagiarism of text.

One solution to this is suggested by none other than ChatGPT itself: “New and effective methods of assessment is the way to go forward”. Interestingly, this coincides with a time when progressive educationists are seeking to redefine the purpose of education and its assessment, and contemplating or already implementing a transformation in that direction.

Shaping new pedagogies

The Government of India’s 2020 National Education Policy (NEP) also declared this intent by invoking “unique capabilities of each student”, “flexibility (for) learners to choose” and “focus on regular formative assessment”— but it failed to lay down policies and practices necessary to translate its progressive vision into action. This would have been the perfect opportunity to mandate new-age pedagogies like Experiential Learning and Project-Based Learning that have definitively demonstrated their impact elsewhere and have become the mainstream in K-12 and Higher Education as well.

A researcher from Alabama State University says, “Allowing students to learn by taking on real-world problems, Project-Based Learning (PBL) is shown to increase collaboration, problem-solving skills, communication, self-direction, creativity, time management, and work ethic”. Approaches and frameworks such as ‘Design Thinking’ are helping to translate the theoretical premises of constructivist learning into practical implementation. According to a researcher at Hasso-Plattner-Institut Academy, design thinking tools “equip students with meta competencies going beyond cognitive knowledge”.

Learning to learn

In the “Learning to Learn” course at Vidyashilp University, we have helped students unpack their most challenging learning experiences and devise alternative strategies to access and engage with them using project-based approaches. Many of our pedagogical and assessment tactics emanate from the field of design pedagogy.

For instance, one student applied tools like “spider diagrams and semantic mapping” to better her understanding of key concepts in psychology. Another student invoked the “pair and share” tool to build effective communication. Another student even tinkered with ChatGPT to inform his learning and deepen understanding of a Data Science project he was working on. Most students reported the ability to adapt their new learning into other courses.

With the introduction of a new pedagogy, however, there is an expectation of resistance. Where do we encounter this resistance? It would be at the faculty and institutional end -- especially those who are deeply invested in and committed to conventional pedagogy, i.e. lectures, long-form texts as reading material, homework overload, and written examinations. New-age, constructivist pedagogies are proliferating (EdTech has massively capitalised on this -- think Byju’s, Upgrad, Udemy, Coursera, etc.,) -- but are also causing irritation and annoyance to some teachers. They feel challenged and in competition with such platforms, which directly affects their idea of authority in the classroom. Even if trained for and convinced of the need to migrate to PBL or similar pedagogies, “making project-based learning successful can feel overwhelming and intimidating,” says Zachary Herrmann, Director of the Center for Professional Learning at UPenn’s Graduate School of Education.

What can educators do, to avoid getting stuck in a position of neither being able to move forward nor revert to earlier ways?

To address this, we have evolved a “Learning to Learn” module for educators and policymakers alike, using a framework that takes off from David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle as well as Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. It helps educators assess their current classroom teaching practice and offers ideas and suggestions to add experiential and engaging aspects to their classroom and assessments.

This is by no means the only way to embrace change and disruption – student-centric and technology-enabled new-age pedagogies are being ushered in the world over in a variety of ways. However, what it does require is a consensus between educators, managements and policymakers to acknowledge and address the challenge together.

The way forward is well-established and actionable, but only when educators and institutions invest time and energy on interrogating and reframing some of their fundamental axioms and premises with open and curious minds -- and undertake a veritable manthan that yields nectar eventually.

(The writers teach in the School of Liberal Arts and Design Studies at Vidyashilp University)

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Published 14 April 2023, 17:14 IST

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