In today’s community college classrooms, technology is everywhere you turn. As higher education institutions embrace the role of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) in everything from sprinkler systems to lecture delivery, it’s clear that the question for many instructors is no longer whether to use tech in the classroom—it’s how to use it well while also maintaining their authentic teaching style.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. And with limited resources available to help them navigate a myriad of edtech options, instructors often find technology to be more of a hindrance than a help. In my conversations with instructors, I’ve heard an increasingly common refrain over the past two years: “I feel like I don’t even teach any more, because all this tech is doing my job for me.”

If there’s one word to sum up this problem, it’s distance. Many faculty members find that technology puts more space between them and their students. It creates more disconnection. It puts up barriers that make it harder to engage authentically and empathetically. Considering that instructors’ main method of communicating outside of class is through an often-clunky interface that presents students as collections of assignments and grades rather than as thinking, feeling human beings, it’s hard not to see why the idea of technology in the classroom conjures more apathy than enthusiasm.

Is this the way it has to be? Is technology doomed to stand between educators and the students they serve? Or is it still possible to fulfill the promise of AI-enabled edtech tools as a way to help students engage and learn?

Solving this puzzle of education technology might start by reframing the question. Rather than thinking of edtech as replacing instructors, or creating distance between students, what if we think of it as a tool that educators can use to accomplish whatever goals they want for their classrooms? And how can they use that tool to close gaps and increase connection with students?

Consider the ways that a growing number of instructors are using AI in the classroom. Emerging AI tools that can evaluate students’ writing for not just grammar and spelling, but also the credibility of their sources and open-endedness of questions, aren’t replacing instructors. Rather, they’re serving as a resource to help students master fundamental skills and enable instructors to dig deeper into students’ thought processes.

For many instructors, giving feedback on fundamental skills like spelling and grammar takes so much time that there’s no room to engage with the underlying ideas themselves. It’s only gotten harder over the past two years, as students enter college after grappling with an unexpected stint in virtual high school—and far less opportunity for in-person interaction with teachers who can help them hone their writing skills. Imagine making it to college, starting a writing class, and only getting feedback about sentence construction. As I’ve learned from my discussions with educators over the years, many students in that situation lose motivation. They stop showing up to class. In some cases, they drop out entirely.

That’s the sort of problem that new approaches to AI are helping instructors to solve. Rather than spending their time on simple fixes like run-on sentences, instructors supported by AI have the freedom to go deeper and help students craft arguments, refine ideas, and build the fundamental skills that will help them succeed both in college and beyond. And that’s just one example. As artificially intelligent chatbots such as ChatGPT transform learning environments, platforms like Packback are building tools to not just detect AI-generated content, but actually use AI to help prevent plagiarism in the first place. If we’re using AI to help cultivate critical thinking and build students’ confidence, we’ll be addressing the challenge at its core, rather than just treating the symptoms.

As much as AI can do in the present day, it can’t provide the priceless aha moments that the best educators can create for their students. We know that transformative learning happens when students build relationships with passionate educators, but educators can’t cultivate passion in their students and spark those aha moments if they are burnt out spending their time correcting the basics. When AI works, it’s making those moments possible. It isn’t creating distance—it’s doing the opposite. It’s closing the gap between teacher and learner, and creating space for the sort of authentic human connection that is the foundation of meaningful learning experiences.

As today’s students navigate an education landscape still reeling from the pandemic, they need all the support they can get. Without that support, it’s ever more likely that they’ll misuse emerging tools like AI to get their work done fast. Of course, that means their instructors need support too. That’s where instructional AI has an opportunity to shine. It won’t replace teachers, and it never should. But we’re already seeing the ways that technology is changing the way that students learn, and we have to make sure those changes are for the better. If chosen and implemented thoughtfully, these emerging tools can help to solve some of the most fundamental challenges in higher education and enable more instructors to facilitate the authentic, substantive interactions that lead to persistence and success.


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