Helping Youth Navigate AI In The Classroom

September 15, 2023

For the first time ever, youth are returning back to school with the most powerful tool yet: artificial intelligence (AI). The question is: how do we support this innovation while ensuring education continues to be seamless and prominent for students? We sat down with Canadian technology CEO and STEM leader, Jennifer Flanagan, to talk about how we can provide students with the insights and resources and to navigate these advances. —Noa Nichol

Hi Jennifer! Please tell us a bit about yourself to start:

I am the CEO and Co-founder of Actua, a leading Canadian organization building confidence and skills of youth through science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. Together with a national network of over 40 universities and colleges, Actua engages 350,000 youth annually from all corners of the country in transformational STEM learning experiences that build the skills necessary for them to lead in the future. I am passionate about education and technology equity and have spent my career working to remove the systemic barriers for those historically excluded from STEM including girls, Indigenous youth, Black youth, youth experiencing socio-economic challenges and youth in rural and remote communities including in the North. STEM is an incredibly effective way to build critical employability skills and confidence. As our reliance and relationship with technology continue to deepen, ensuring that all Canadians have access to the tools needed to be educated in STEM is an absolute must. I am also the mom of two girls, a proud New Brunswicker, a girls hockey coach and now live in Ottawa (and love it!).

For the first time ever, youth are returning back to school with the most powerful tool yet: artificial intelligence (AI). What are some leading trends we’ll be seeing with this technology for 2023, in classrooms?

First and foremost, what we’re seeing are more and more educators embracing this new technology. Only a few months ago, many educators had never heard of generative AI tools like Chat GPT, let alone used them. Many of those who had were fearful of its impact on education and learning. But, as the benefits have come to light, and the reality that AI is not going away and students are embracing it, many in the education sector have begun using it themselves. Through tools like Chat GPT, we’re seeing opportunities for customized learning experiences such as personalized learning for students, assisted tutoring outside of the classroom, language support for students learning English or French, and even gamifying the learning experience to be more interactive and hands-on.

What are some problems/issues that could arise?

While artificial intelligence (AI) holds great promise for education, there are issues that we need to be aware of including data privacy, ethics, bias and misinformation. For example, if there is bias in the data the AI is learning from, the results will include this bias. Misinformation is another issue because the results of the generative AI tool will only be as factual as the data it’s sharing. Ensuring those using these tools are thinking critically and understand how to seek out multiple reliable sources will be important to prevent the spread of misinformation. Another concern I have is the lack of access where some students have access to digital devices and the internet and can access AI tools—while others cannot. The digital divide has the potential to widen if this isn’t addressed. Finally, ensuring educators are properly trained on AI tools is critical. The more teachers understand how to use these tools, the better equipped they will be to help students use them responsibly and effectively and to use these tools themselves to enhance their teaching.

How about some of the educational benefits AI can provide?

AI tools like ChatGPT can give teachers more time to do the work that our kids need from teachers, and that teachers are so good at by automating some of the more time-consuming tasks. This includes tasks like grading and test preparation. AI can provide efficiency, freeing up time to provide more personalized learning plans for students. In fact, Chat GPT can help design those specialized learning plans, too. Because these tools act as a very smart assistant to the teacher, it frees up their time to prepare customized learning materials and resources that are tailored to a student’s individual needs and learning styles. This is especially valuable for students who learn differently or need extra attention. Outside of the classroom, tools like Chat GPT offer accessible support, serving as after-hours tutors for children. They facilitate knowledge growth across various subjects and provide additional assistance in areas where children may require extra support in their learning journey.

What are your top tips around online safety for students/how to keep kids safe online when utilizing emerging technologies in the classroom?

There are many digital safety tips to consider, but my top tips include:

  1. Prioritize open and ongoing conversations with children about technology. Create a safe space where they feel comfortable discussing their online experiences, questions, ideas and concerns. Encourage them to share any discomfort or confusing situations they encounter online. Avoid approaching this conversation with fear, and instead approach it with curiosity.
  2. Educate children about the importance of online safety. Teach them to protect their personal information, avoid sharing sensitive details about themselves, and recognize potential online threats.
  3. Help them become good digital citizens. Guide them in treating others with kindness and respect in digital spaces, just as they would offline, and encourage critical thinking by discussing how to evaluate information found online and emphasize the value of trustworthy sources.

How about your best advice on how to help kids harness new technologies in innovative ways?

My best advice is for the adults in their lives to learn how to use these tools too! If you are a parent or caregiver, or a teacher, coach or tutor—learn about these tools so that you can use them with the children in your life. Once you know more about these tools, prioritize open and ongoing conversations about technology. Create a safe space where they feel comfortable discussing their online experiences, questions, ideas and concerns and where you can foster their creativity and innovation.

What role can parents/teachers play in navigating ChatGPT and other AI platforms and nurturing youth to develop valuable, transferable skills that can be used in the classroom and throughout life?

Parents and teachers should approach this new technology with positivity and use these tools with their children. By taking this approach, parents can help their children understand the opportunities and risks of technology and create a safe space for children to explore the tools. Another role parents and teachers can play is to help children learn critical thinking. Help them understand that they should question what they see or hear online or through AI tools like Chat GPT. They should understand what sources are reliable and also seek out human interaction and points of view in addition to information provided by generative AI tools. Critical thinking is a valuable life skill that can be used in a variety of situations.

What about parents? What can we be doing to encourage/increase skill-development among our own kids?

Parents and caregivers play a vital role in supporting children’s skill development. They can help their children develop digital literacy skills by guiding them to use technology responsibly and safely, teaching them about good digital citizenship, digital privacy, and how to evaluate the reliability of online information. They can foster a growth mindset and encourage children to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, and view failures as learning opportunities with these emerging platforms. Finally, I encourage parents to create a learning-friendly environment. Set up a dedicated study area at home, ensure access to educational resources such as books and digital devices, access to educational apps and online learning platforms, and minimize distractions during study time. Build digital learning into their day-to-day education through their formal schooling, and informally through experimentation and encouraging curiosity when they are at home.


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