Artificial intelligence and educating our children: A conversation with Professor Rose Luckin

Professor Rose Luckin is Professor of Learner Centred Design at the UCL Knowledge Lab and was the lead for the roundtable on Educating our Children. She sat down (virtually) with roundtable coordinator, Audrey Tan, to share her thoughts on the most salient points of the discussion. Read more about the series and the Insights for Public Policy on the AI for People and Planet website.

What sort of policy-related projects are you working on right now?

RL: The Institute for Ethical AI in Education is continuing to develop the guidelines that we hope will help with policy. Over the summer we are holding a series of roundtables with different groups of stakeholders, including students, prior to an International summit in November and then the publication of the final report early in 2021. And then of course there is the research study into how technology has been used in education during the pandemic restrictions. We hope to publish our report in November, once we have finished analysing the wide range of data from surveys, interviews, daily questions, twitter feeds and publicly available data bases

I’ve also been advocating for educational technology in informal ways. I’ve been joining lots of different webinars and seminars that aren’t directly connected to AI, but are in related areas. It’s important to ‘prime the pump’ to increase AI readiness. I’ve attended a couple of roundtables with the World Economic Forum as they have a branch of work on ‘Generation AI: Developing Artificial Intelligence Standards for Children.’ will.i.am (yes, you read that right) is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Advisory Committee and Global Artificial Intelligence Council and I actually ended up in a webinar breakout room where it was just the two of us.

Oh, wow! What sort of goal or objectives are underpinning those discussions?

RL: The first event that I attended was right in the middle of lockdown. We were discussing how AI can support students in a pandemic situation and now help personalise education experiences. You know, when children come back to school post-lockdown, one of the main problems is going to be that they will all be at different stages of the curriculum. AI and educational software can help teachers to identify where each student is at and where the gaps are.

We’re also building on the work we’ve done previously around the fourth industrial revolution, which is more about how education needs to change in terms of the skills and expertise that we develop in young people, because we have lots more automation and AI in the workplace, as well as various other factors that influence the fourth industrial revolution. So I think they’re now trying to move more towards how do we use AI, effectively in education, and what are the ethical implications of that?

Great, and that kind of ties into the next question, was there anything that surprised you from the roundtable discussion?

RL: No, I don’t think it was anything that surprised me. I was very pleased with the way it went and how committed people were to trying to find some practical ways forward and trying to think about what could really be done. There was a sense of urgency, but also a recognition that there are some things that we could start working on now. Whereas I think had there not been a pandemic, it would have been perhaps a slightly more luxurious discussion without that sense of urgency. I was also really impressed by how honest people were about their own experiences and what they had to offer.

I was very pleased that we also managed to identify three really key areas where we can link into current policy making: improvement to broadband, recovery from the pandemic, and the huge inequalities that have been demonstrated time and time again during lockdown. So if there was a surprise, it was a pleasant surprise.

Were there things that you hadn’t considered before?

RL: I think the discussion about the kind of top-down versus bottom-up way of trying to bring about change in education was particularly interesting. I suppose because I’ve always come from a very much grassroots approach, it was interesting to hear that of course, it has to be both directions. Meaning that we need appetite and interest from leadership at the top to enable and drive change, but we need these changes to be contextualised and complemented by bottom up initiatives (i.e. teachers, educators, parents) as well.

What do you think are the key areas for public policy and AI in the field of education?

RL: Without a doubt the key one is around ethics. If we don’t get the ethics right, then we risk compromising and possibly ruining the possibility of AI being used for good in education. I think the other area is around assessment and that’s come through in a lot of discussions recently as well, especially given what’s happening around 2020 A-level and GCSE results at the moment. And of course we must consider the curriculum and whether or not it is providing young people with the right knowledge and skills for the pandemic impacted world.

There’s an opening now for AI policy that perhaps wasn’t there before the pandemic. We’ve been trying to push the assessment aspect for a while, but up until the pandemic it’s been challenging to open doors. However, because we’ve seen that the pandemic and its implications will be continuing and long-lasting, there is more appetite now for considering the use of AI for assessment — particularly formative assessment, and potentially as a replacement for the exams and tests that cause teachers and learner such anxiety. There are AI-assisted alternatives and different ways of thinking that we can offer and there is a great opportunity to address the urgent need to redress the growing inequality between learners from advantaged and disadvantaged communities.

We also need to think about where we need to be with the curriculum. Is it really optimal to still be focusing on fact-based learning? We’re experiencing so many changes as a result of the pandemic and young people need to actually develop the skills to be able to cope with this level of uncertainty.

I think one of the really interesting conversations we’re currently having with the Department of Education is around the nature of what it means to be in school. With technology, but particularly with AI, you could create something that would allow fairly seamless learning in or out of school. So for example, say somebody in a year group tests positive for COVID-19 and their classmates have to self-isolate and have to learn at home. This won’t be too disruptive if you’ve got a coherent system where you can swap between online learning and classroom relatively easily.

The other place where there’s fertile ground is thinking about the opportunities for AI in making education more flexible. Whether it’s helping students catch up, really helping them extend themselves or connecting people more effectively. Actively, whether it’s about giving educators and parents much greater information about where a student is in terms of their learning, all of those parts of AI are highly relevant. So I think the possibilities for AI and education in terms of policy making are way more significant than they were at the start of the year. I think there’s a lot of possibility and that’s why I think getting something like the green paper would be really good, because we can start to really push on some of those elements after that.

So it was really perfectly into one of the last questions was, which was about how can we build on the engagement and sort of what are the next steps?

RL: I think a green paper where people can work together to produce it would be a good as a first step. Then some kind of practical project would be a really good way to keep people engaged. So looking at some of the points that were raised during the discussion of what changes are needed in terms of funding, regulations and ethics, we could push forward on any one of those. There was an interesting combination of people at the roundtable who are in a position to help make something happen.

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More about the Roundtables

Jointly supported by UCL Public Policy, UCL Grand Challenges, the Business and Innovations Partnerships team and UCLB from UCL Innovation and Enterprise, UCL hosted a series of roundtable discussions on the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) throughout 2020–2021. This series brought together leading voices in policy, industry, third sector and academia with the aim of stimulating dialogue and forging consensus on how to deliver ‘AI for People and Planet.’

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