Schoolchildren with tablets:
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In the midst of the big hype around artificial intelligence (AI), China is forging ahead in the area that is most important for the success of the digital transformation around AI: education. It's May, and a test run at dozens of schools with hundreds of classes begins, it's about the new school subject artificial intelligence. The pupils should be comprehensively introduced to the topic, starting in primary school. In terms of content, the AI training and the (digital) textbook series developed specifically for this purpose range from economic and social aspects to security and concrete software programming, for example with the help of the Python language.
One might find it astonishing that China reacts so quickly to such hype. However, the reality is even sadder, from a German perspective, because the above has already happened in 2018. The planning for this is based on a government strategy from 2017 (which is described here and has been partially translated here), in which the focus was obviously placed on education and AI, in two respects: as learning content and as a new learning technology.
Jump to Germany, November 2022, to the Education Digitization Conference, which, according to its own statement, is the "leading conference for good schools in the digital world in German-speaking countries". There, an AI expert would like to hold the workshop "Artificial intelligence in the classroom - how do students become AI-competent?". Actually. The »German School Portal« reports: »But before the workshop really starts, someone shouts into the room: »And what about data protection?« First of all, the community manager has to deal with a lot of skepticism in the room.« Unfortunately, it must be assumed that these are comparatively digital-savvy education professionals such as teachers, and experience has shown that the numerous digital enemies in the educational landscape tend not to go to such conferences.
If you think this example is exaggerated, you can watch the February 2022 interview of the largest and most powerful textbook publisher in terms of sales, David Klett of the Klett Group. His core message is: "Nobody knows what AI is supposed to do at school". The textbook, on the other hand, provides security. Yes, namely the Klett Group and the other two textbook publishers, who share 90 percent of the market in Germany among themselves.
Artificial intelligence meets fear
The first test runs with artificially intelligent learning software in schools have been taking place in various federal states since 2021. Because, of course, part of the educational landscape and the people involved are progressively oriented and ready to face the challenges of digital AI reality – although there is often a lack of resources, infrastructures, time, know-how and goodwill from crucial bodies. However, there are not very many friends of educational progress. Especially since the fight for more and better digitization in schools can be extremely grueling. In addition to general digital skepticism, the biggest obstacles to AI in German schools include the following points outlined by experts at the aforementioned conference:
In schools, there is generally a lack of trust in offers from educational companies (except, of course, from textbook publishers).
Teachers' insight that artificial intelligence makes sense at all is not particularly widespread.
At the same time, the fear of being replaced by artificial intelligence is apparently widespread.
At least the last point is partly unfounded, in the foreseeable future no AI is likely to come onto the market that is reluctant to even take note of AI in the educational context and to continue to insist on overhead projectors as the most modern technology in the classroom. The current IGLU study, the International Primary School Reading Survey, has just become known. According to the study, 25 percent of fourth-graders do not reach the minimum level of text comprehension required for further education: they cannot read or cannot read properly. This is the third time in a row that Germany has reached a low point, and children are doing "far worse than their peers in many other countries," according to the Tagesschau.
This has to do quite directly with artificial intelligence, because AI is the best known tool for so-called adaptive learning. Behind this is a pedagogical method that offers all students the learning content and learning methodology that is best for them at that moment. Especially for very diverse learning communities, where, for example, German is not the first language of some of the children, adaptive learning has been proven to be excellent for achieving at least a halfway similar level of education. Theoretically, there are hardly any limits to adaptation in terms of language or the constant review of individual learning success and its orientation. But printed textbooks are, of course, much more privacy-friendly. In addition, the companies that profit from this are much more German or tradition-conscious than the evil international digital corporations and dubious start-ups that want to poison our poor children's souls with zeros and ones.
The AI revolution is particularly affecting education
One of the largest tutoring providers in the U.S., the Chegg platform, said in a quarterly earnings conference call in early May that ChatGPT may have apparently led to a slowdown in growth. Although the CEO's formulations were chosen quite cautiously, investors immediately understood the extent of this realization, with the stock market price plummeting by more than 40 percent. Education is one of the areas most severely affected by the AI revolution and at the earliest. Except, of course, in Germany, where it can hardly be ruled out that a "printed textbook obligation" will soon be included in the Basic Law.
ChatGPT has just rolled out two new offers for premium customers. On the one hand, a mediocre well-functioning connection to the Internet. Previously, ChatGPT could only access a data status up to autumn 2021, but now it can access real-time sources. If OpenAI improves this application a little or even makes it functional, there will be a new order of magnitude in the use of digital media for education, for example in terms of researching and classifying current events and study results. The second, newly available offer, however, is likely to become even more powerful – and it allows a small outlook on the upcoming educational offerings. It's a plug-in store that allows you to integrate third-party software into your ChatGPT, much like apps on your smartphone. Two of the just under 100 plug-ins currently available offer a service that already caused astonishment from other providers in the spring. You can upload content, for example a PDF with a scientific study or an e-book, and then ask this PDF questions. A hyper-individual AI learning dialogue with the teaching material itself, precisely adapted to the students' questions, is adaptive learning from below, so to speak. Scandalously without the involvement of German textbook publishers! And yet a glimpse into the future.
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Because this tiny excerpt from the learning reality that is already possible with AI today is an exemplary example of what education with artificial intelligence will look like if it is not integrated by teaching institutions such as schools: It is practiced by the students themselves, only without guidance, without pedagogical assistance, without an approachable confidant. Artificial intelligence is not coming to school, artificial intelligence has been in school for a long time, just not planned by those responsible.
This can certainly be understood as a mixture of wake-up call, threat and opportunity: If we start integrating AI into schools immediately, at the current speed of German education policy, we have a great opportunity to make our schools fit for the future just a few decades after China.
Note: In the past, I have worked with two of the three major German textbook publishers (Klett and Westermann) for projects and lectures.