AI can’t replace teaching, but it can improve it

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Khanamigo doesn’t answer students’ questions directly, but instead asks questions of its own, such as whether students have any ideas about how to find the answer. It then leads them to the solution, step by step, with hints and encouragement.

Despite Khan’s broader vision of an “amazing” private tutor for every student in the world, DeCerbo assigns KhanMigo a more limited teaching role. When students are working independently on a skill or concept but get stuck or fall into a cognitive rut, she says, “We want to help students get out of getting stuck.”

Nearly 100,000 students and teachers tested KhanMiGo in schools across the country over the past academic year, helping to identify any confusion from the robot and providing DeCerbo and his team with a wealth of student-bot conversations to analyze.

“We focus on things like summaries, prompts, and encouragement,” she explains.

The extent to which KhanMiGo has reduced the AI ​​interaction gap is not yet known. According to DeCerbo, Khan Academy plans to release some summary data on student-bot interactions later this summer. Plans to assess the tutor’s impact on learning by third-party researchers will take more time.

AI feedback works both ways

Since 2021, the nonprofit Saga Education has also been experimenting with AI feedback to help tutors better engage and motivate students. Working with researchers from the University of Memphis and the University of Colorado, the Saga team fed transcripts of their math tutoring sessions in 2023 into an AI model trained to recognize when a tutor was prompting students to explain their reasoning, refine their answers, or initiate a deeper discussion. The AI ​​analyzed how often each tutor took these steps.

Tracking nearly 2,300 teaching sessions over several weeks, they found that instructors whose instructors used AI feedback incorporated these prompts significantly more often into their sessions to encourage student engagement.

Although Saga is considering having the AI ​​provide some feedback directly to tutors, it’s doing so cautiously because, according to Brent Milne, vice president of product research and development at Saga Education, “it’s really valuable for us to have a human coach.”

Experts expect AI’s role in education to grow and its interactions to continue to seem more and more human. Earlier this year, OpenAI and startup Hume AI separately launched “emotionally intelligent” AI that analyzes voice and facial expressions to guess a user’s mood and respond with calibrated “empathy.” Still, even emotionally intelligent AI will fall short on the student engagement front, according to Brown University computer science professor Michael Littman, who is also the National Science Foundation’s division director for Information and Intelligent Systems.

He says that no matter how human the interactions are, students understand on a basic level that the AI ​​doesn’t really care about them, what they have to say in their writing, or whether they pass or fail the subjects. In turn, students will never really care about the bot and its ideas. A study in June in the journal Learning and Instruction found that AI can already give good feedback on students’ essays. It’s unclear whether student writers will put in the care and effort they need to put in writing rather than handing the work over to a bot if AI becomes the primary audience for their work.

“The human relationship component of learning has incredible value, and when you take humans out of the equation, something is lost,” says Littman.

This story about AI tutors was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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