Technology & the Future of Public Education

CITRIS Policy Lab
Oct 30, 2020 · 4 min read

Elana Zeide, Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska College of Law, on the benefits and risks of emerging technologies in public education.

Elana Zeide teaches and writes about the legal, privacy and ethical implications of emerging technologies as an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska’s College of Law, after a recent stint as a PULSE Fellow in Artificial Intelligence, Law & Policy at UCLA’s School of Law. Recent articles include Student Privacy in the Age of Big Data, The Structural Consequences of Big Data-Driven Education, and Algorithms Can Be Lousy Fortune Tellers. Zeide received her B.A. cum laude in American Studies from Yale University, and her J.D. and LL.M. from New York University School of Law.

The following are her remarks captured from a public panel “The Inclusive Workforce: Strategies to Enhance the Future of Public Sector Work” hosted by the CITRIS Policy Lab.

1. In your piece “Robot Teaching, Pedagogy and Policy” you talk about the role of AI in displacing professional authority, institutional accountability, and public policy making in education. In what ways is AI displacing teacher labor?

It’s important to not only consider the potential displacement of teacher labor, but the displacement of teachers’ authority and autonomy. AI can displace teachers’ autonomy in deciding what students should learn, what is important, and what is “enough” to move students to the next level. Those types of decisions are historically grounded in local and state authority, which are now partly being made by the technology sectors developing AI-enabled teaching tools. The flipside of that is these systems might also be able to improve the kind of tasks that the teachers work on. The tools can eliminate some rote chores so that teachers have more time to focus on the more human-centric interactions and possibilities.

2. What is one concrete strategy that can be employed to better maximize benefits and reduce risks from emerging technologies in public sector work?

One strategy is to promote less traditional educational pathways that are more skill- or certificate-based to allow people to take on less student debt and adapt to changing workforce demands. It’s also crucial to give people an education in soft skills, including interpersonal relationships, critical thinking, communication skills. Those are the skills that are going to remain consistently in demand even as technology changes and they are central to being able to collaborate with technologists.

3. What do you think is the most valuable action the education sector can take to maximize AI’s benefits?

I think there are two actions that can be taken: one is to keep expectations and promises in check and the second is to engage multiple stakeholders. Often in education people become enamored of the next new thing that’s going to fix everything. The world is much too complicated for that. It’s also important for schools and technology providers to interact with a variety of stakeholders when creating and implementing AI systems. Not just the administrators, but teachers, students, and community members who may be impacted. When you create something only with a particular client in mind, especially in a sector like education that touches many different kinds of people, you may end up with solutions that are ineffective or have disproportionate impacts.

4. We are increasingly relying on technology during this time of crisis. Is technology a benefit or a harm to public education?

Technology is great, but we risk over relying on specific technologies. Not everyone has ready access to high quality and recent hardware and software and they end up excluded when technology facilitates most communication, education, and connection. At the same time, students who are learning online are much more aware that technology is not neutral and that nuances make a difference. I think they will start creating and designing systems and business models that don’t pose as many practical and ethical problems. I also think that the pandemic has shown us the need for community. I hope that after this isolation time period that we will create different ways for communities to come together and interact.

5. Would you say utilization of AI in public systems is better to start at the state level or at more of a local level?

From a legal point of view, local governments have been able to overcome legislative inertia and enact facial recognition bans or algorithmic accountability task forces. It’s more difficult to implement creative reforms through state or federal laws. That’s the benefit of the flexibility you can get from local communities.

The CITRIS Policy Lab, headquartered at CITRIS and the Banatao Institute at UC Berkeley, supports interdisciplinary research, education, and thought leadership to address core questions regarding the role of formal and informal regulation in promoting innovation and amplifying its positive effects on society.