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Geoff Johnson: Surfing offers lessons for dealing with AI in education

School boards need to ride the AI wave, but in a way that protects teachers and students from the perils while not limiting its educational potential
Geoff Johnson in much younger days at his favourite surfing spot. VIA GEOFF JOHNSON

I’d never considered using the words “artificial intelligence” and “surfing” in the same sentence.

Having grown up in Australia, I know a bit about the latter, but the former is still a mystery to me and, apparently, many other people, so let’s begin with surfing.

Surfing involves dealing with a constantly changing environment by watching for the next wave and deciding whether to paddle into it or not.

To catch a wave, the surfer needs to be paddling at the same speed as the wave as it prepares to break when the water beneath it becomes shallower. Hesitation brings its own perils and should play no part in what happens next.

Commitment to the wave is when the fun begins.

The public education system finds itself in an equally challenging position with AI.

In a piece entitled “Embracing Artificial Intelligence in the Classroom” by Elizabeth M. Ross posted in July on the website of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ross quotes Houman Harouni, lecturer on education at the grad school and a former teacher, as advising educators against hesitation when it comes to figuring out what to do with AI.

“The cautious response is to be expected according to Houman Harouni,” she writes. “He has compassion for educators trying to grapple with a rapidly shifting world shaped by machine learning. Technology creates a shock and this shock is sometimes of a magnitude that we cannot even understand it.”

On more than one occasion while surfing I’ve had the: “Uh oh, I didn’t realize this wave was so big” experience and learned that the only thing to do was to take advantage of what the wave has to offer and depend on the lifetime of skills and knowledge I had come to depend upon.

In the same way, Ross says Harouni’s best advice for educators dealing with the wave of opportunities that arrive in the AI classroom is “to understand what opportunities are left open beside the technology.”

That is exactly the problem facing school boards across Canada. They see the need to ride the AI wave, but in a way that protects teachers and students from the perils of AI while not limiting its educational potential.

The Canadian Press asked 10 school boards in different parts of the country whether they would implement a formal policy for the 2023-24 school year that covers teacher and student use of AI, such as chatbots that can solve math problems or write essays.

Among the boards that responded to the survey, none had an official AI-specific policy. Some said they would apply their existing codes of conduct to the use of AI in the classroom, while others said they’re in consultations on how to best tackle the fast-growing issue.

Lauren Bialystok, a professor of social justice education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, told broadcast news network CityNews that it’s not surprising that school boards aren’t instituting formal policies on AI.

She’s also not convinced such policies would work. “A board-wide policy or even a school-wide policy — in some cases even a department-wide policy — will necessarily be too general, or too specific for someone.”

She also noted that AI is constantly evolving so it would be very hard to keep up with it from a policy perspective.

In an email to CityNews Vancouver, Education Minister Rachna Singh said the ministry is continuing to research AI and “how best to support schools and teachers as they navigate this topic.”

B.C. has been speaking with other jurisdictions regarding AI and its potential impacts on K-12 education as part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s High Performing Systems for Tomorrow initiative, the minister told CityNews.

Currently, the B.C. school curriculum mentions AI in just one elective Grade 12 technology course. Until the burgeoning technology is seen more frequently in school curriculums, one expert says it’s a good idea to get conversations started in classrooms around the new tool.

Ron Darvin, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of language and literacy education told CityNews: “Whether we like it or not, students are accessing these tools.”

An important question for policy makers to ask themselves is whether current versions of AI are simply the first wave of this new technology.

Experienced surfers will tell you that the expression “the 9th wave” refers to a wave of incredible size that comes after a succession of smaller then incrementally larger waves.

It is this 9th wave for which surfers prepare themselves.

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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