What Do Students Need to Learn to Use AI Effectively?

Notes on the relationship between student, content, and teacher.

GUEST COLUMN | by Andrew Pass and Pauline Valvo 

Many years ago I developed a metaphor for the relationship between student, content, and teacher that I continue to think about today. The content stands on one end of a bridge and the student stands on the other. The teacher’s role is to bring the content and student together so the student can effectively use the content. Learning only occurs when the student develops knowledge of and the ability to use content. Content learned in school is intended to help students and it can only help them if they know it and can use it effectively. 

‘…the real question that educational stakeholders must answer is, “How can schools most effectively enable students to develop the necessary skills to use AI for their own meaningful purposes?”

Technology is also intended to help people. Though there are various definitions of technology, I prefer this one from Encyclopedia Britannica: “the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of human life or, as it is sometimes phrased, to the change and manipulation of the human environment.”  When people apply technology they are better able to achieve their objectives. 

The Role of AI in School

It is with these two concepts, the purpose of learning and the definition of technology, in mind that I would like to turn our attention to the role of artificial intelligence in school. Specifically, how should students consciously interact with artificial intelligence (not the learning tools powered by AI) in school? 

Generative artificial intelligence tools that create products such as written text, music, video, or pictures, are here to stay. Many educators question how to prevent student plagiarism. What will the Oscars do when the first acclaimed movie developed by AI comes up for a nomination? What will Sotheby’s customers pay for art created by AI? 

These are interesting questions but they miss the point of the most important educational question related to AI. In order to successfully participate in our AI-driven economy, students will have to develop the skills to use AI to solve real problems and build useful solutions. Therefore, the real question that educational stakeholders must answer is, “How can schools most effectively enable students to develop the necessary skills to use AI for their own meaningful purposes?”

AI Does Not Yet Program Itself

At its core, AI tools process data and we are all familiar with the old saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.” If one does not have a clear understanding of what they want the AI to do and therefore lacks the ability to make a precise request of the tool, they will not get the results they want. 

Recently I learned that a major university developed much of its STEM curriculum around AI. Agriculture students learn that AI has the ability to run machines that can observe plants, determine the nutrients that the plants need, and then provide these nutrients to the plants. However, AI does not yet program itself. Agriculturalists must develop, or at least assist programmers in the development of, the algorithms that run this AI. It is outside the scope of this article, and the author’s ability, to describe this work of the agriculturalist. But, it certainly requires deep knowledge. 

Educational institutions teaching agriculture, as a proxy for any other other subject area, must ensure that students develop the knowledge and skills to effectively use AI technology. Without this knowledge, it would be as if the students are standing in front of a keyboard unable to write. Learning how to effectively engage with artificial intelligence will be the most important skill that today’s students will learn. 

Skills, Knowledge, Ability to Evaluate and the Inevitable Future

Students must learn incredibly complicated cognitive skills to effectively use AI. In addition to subject area knowledge, sophisticated AI users must have the ability to recognize the output they are seeking and the skills to provide the specific input request that will generate this outcome. Furthermore, the output cannot just be trusted as being accurate. Therefore, AI users must have the ability to evaluate the responses they receive. Just imagine the environmental and economic disasters that could occur if the agricultural system described above was not properly safeguarded yet allowed to run free. 

It’s inevitable that the future will be AI-driven. Therefore we as educators have a duty to ensure that all students learn how to be effective AI prompters, with the skills and knowledge to provide meaningful inputs that AI will utilize to produce the desired and necessary outputs. AI and the associated tools will be rapidly evolving, so students must also learn to adapt. The journey of learning the required knowledge and skills, and adapting as necessary, will traverse an entire educational career, and it’s important that learners get exposure as soon as possible. 

Andrew Pass is the founder and Pauline Valvo is the Vice President of Business Development at A Pass Educational Group. A Pass partners with organizations to develop customized educational content including courses and assessment items.


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