I’ve got my A-Eye on you …

A year ago the world of education was disrupted by the introduction of a new technology akin to Columbus docking the Santa Maria in Barcelona after his discovering the ‘New World’ in 1493. I’m referring of course to the release of (advanced) AI, which was soon followed by the convening of education authorities to discuss merits, concerns and strategies for dealing with the technology’s enclutching tentacles. 

I don’t pose as any oracle prophesying future ills or gains from AI in education but I see two important, distinctive issues, especially after participating in several workshops and seminars. 

First, I think the generative capacities are intriguing and potentially very potent for personalizing student learning, stoking students’ interests and enhancing what many self-directed learners were already doing outside of the bounds of conventional schooling constraining their learning through standardized curricula and regimented schooling. To many You-Tubers already richly pioneering their own learning pathways, I perceive AI isn’t going to make that much difference in their learning lives. 

Second, I see parallels with the rollout of AI from educational administrators that is not so different than what was previously conceived and foisted on the world as “individualized learning” from when computerized curricula was first rolled out in the 1970s. In individualized learning, administrators, teachers and technologists controlled the (computerized) learning pathways: for a correct answer, students click their way through mindless program after mindless program. This was branded as a form of Mastery (sic) learning. The real origins of this process date back to the behavioural training of pigeons, rats and, subsequently, people in the latter 1800s. This was later perfected by Sidney Pressey in the 1920s who designed his ‘teaching machine’ for mass use in public schools. This machine paved the way for the Scantron era of standardized testing. 

My point is, based on what I’ve seen and heard from the first rollout of seminar leaders praising the ‘opportunities’ of AI in education, they are largely oriented to conflating AI’s introduction with heightened forms of ‘Mastery’ learning – as solely defined by the masters of this technology. In this way, AI is not liberatory as much as it is stifling, and not so different from Pressey’s teaching machine that crudely and abusively manipulated the learning trajectories of millions of young learners. 

Sidney Pressey’s ‘Teaching Machine’ (ca 1926) introduced as an adjunct to standardized testing. Students pressed levers to select a multiple choice answer to a question; for a correct answer the machine dispensed a candy pellet down a chute and enabled students to proceed to the next question (Smithsonian Institution).

It’s also no secret that AI has long been associated with surveillance, and, in education, AI-assisted ‘mastery learning’ and testing often works in disguise as a surveillance technology not only compiling data on student work but also on educators. In this way checking off prescribed learning outcome boxes (noted in the AI world via keystroke entries) is the only way students may proceed, or how teachers may be identified as adhering to administrative orders, or not. With AI there’s little need anymore for in-person classroom visits by department heads or principals; they can (and do) monitor classroom progress via their own desktop computers. 

I hope I’m proved wrong about this but conventional educational authorities have aggresively adapted  technologies to their purposes before. To which I say, thank goodness for YouTube and many other platforms truly helping learners of all ages explore their own interests and hone personal skills and competencies. 

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