No Brainer: AI in the Classroom
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, Digital Citizenship Special Issue, 2020
By Micah Shippee, PhD
What is AI? It sounds other-worldly, futuristic…and a bit scary. Artificial intelligence (AI) is an area of computing science focused on the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans. AI learns through the data we generate in our real-time efforts and many AI products impact and improve our daily lives. Here is a list of some of my favourite AI technologies and products that may be beneficial to the teachers in the classroom.
Voice Recognition and Writing
One form of AI is voice recognition. It recognizes human speech and outputs it as text—all in real time. In the classroom, voice recognition can be useful for students struggling with writing. In two decades of teaching middle school, many of my students have struggled to translate their thoughts into keystrokes. It’s difficult to type at the same speed that we think or speak. Apps like Google Docs have Voice Typing tools that allow users to simply articulate their thoughts while the computer does the rest.
I once worked with a grade 5 student who, although doing well in school, was very anxious about writing an essay because of her inability to find the letters on a keyboard quickly (in her opinion). I demonstrated voice typing and she was able to focus on the message rather than the keyboard. The result was more writing, and often for some students—better writing.
Reviewing and Editing
Now that it is easy for students to fill up a page with text, they must be even more thorough when reviewing and editing their work. The Hemingway app is my favourite tool. The website is designed to support good writing. After users finish writing their first draft of an assignment, they can copy and paste it into Hemingway. The website’s algorithm provides real-time analysis of the writing as it’s being edited. Words and sentences are colour coded to indicate what type of change could be made to strengthen the work. For example, yellow highlights indicate a sentence is too long or complex, while green represents a passive voice.
I tell my students to treat editing like a game: remove all of the colours by revising their writing. The app also measures the readability of the writing as a grade level. Once students are satisfied with their revisions, they may copy the new text back to their original text editor.
Translation is another commonly used AI app, although it is not advanced enough to fully replace learning another language. For example, my colleague shares that Google translates the English phrase “Paper Jam” to “Mermelada de papel” in Spanish. While it is a sticky situation, it is not quite the same “jam.” Despite this translation faux pas, the future of language learning is very exciting.
In our classes, we may use these inaccurate translations as teachable moments in language instruction. For example, if you are teaching an international language to native English speakers, ask them to type a sentence in English and use Google Translate to change the language. This helps students understand the difference between literal translations and actual meanings. As the power of AI increases, we will likely see translations that are thought-for-thought and eventually, even paraphrased.
Another form of AI is recognition of hand drawings. Google’s Quick, Draw! is a game that asks users to draw or doodle different objects like a book or a dog. Millions of images have been submitted and the computer continues to learn and interpret them. How can this form of technology help students? Have you ever had to insert a special character or symbol while typing, but could not think of the name? In Google Docs, for example, when a user cannot find a special character from a prepopulated list, they may instead draw it in the search box. This could be beneficial to students looking for symbols, emojis, punctuations, accents, currency symbols, etc. without having to know the correct name of each.
Good handwriting is often regarded as important in subjects like language arts, but it’s equally important in subjects like math or chemistry where students often have to write out long and complex equations. AI helps learners by digitizing their handwritten notes that are stored in the cloud, but also easily searched come exam time. One of the apps I like for handwritten text recognition is ViewSonic’s myViewBoard. Teachers write equations on an interactive screen and with the click of a button, it converts into text that is shared with students—much faster than transcribing them manually.
Similarly, Evernote is another app I enjoy. It allows users to type in key words while searching handwritten notes. This would be useful for students who prefer writing out assignments by hand but would still like some of the benefits of technology.
The idea that some form of artificial intelligence might take over parts of our daily lives may seem a bit scary. If we embrace it however, AI has a role to play, especially in the classroom. AI’s varied applications and its ability to teach itself can support students across different styles of learning.
Micah Shippee is a social-studies teacher and educational-technology trainer in Liverpool, NY with two decades of experience. He is also a Google for Education Certified Innovator, National Geographic Educator, author, and consultant.