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Artificial Intelligence, Relationships and Future Education

Over the past few years, I have discussed many of the changes in the educational landscape from the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to the implementation of experiential learning inside and outside the digital classroom. In recent months, ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence tool that allows users to create various types of written products including essays, has prompted a fierce discussion over the future of education.

The use of artificial intelligence definitely poses certain challenges to academia. But it will also allow educators to focus their efforts on relationship building, the key to students’ academic success.

Educators Rely on Personal Relationships

Educators in the modern era must juggle several tasks, ranging from grading stacks of exams and papers to creating courses and engaging in independent scholarship. Despite their busy schedules, educators must always maintain that education is, at its core, built on a series of complex relationships. These relationships include professor-to-student and student-to-student relationships.

artificial intelligence educator 2 Barney
Educators rely on forming relationships with all of their students.

According to the Wall Street Journal, it is important to form close relationships to have a long and fulfilling life. Educator Rita Pierson also reinforces the need for teachers to form connections with their students in her TED talk.

The development of solid professor-student and student-to-student relationships are critical in helping students achieve their individual academic goals. But others fear that artificial intelligence will dislocate the mass education model and usher in a new era.

While there are many possible outcomes with the entrance of artificial intelligence into education, I believe that the future of education will, in many ways, look to the tutorial method and other educational methods for inspiration for one simple reason. Students will never accept an educational model that completely replaces the human teacher.

So, while some experts have focused on the negative aspects of artificial intelligence on educators, I argue that artificial intelligence can strengthen the relationships that form the basis of student success, providing that AI is harnessed with the best interests of students.

Related: AI Tools Like ChatGPT Are Challenging Scholarly Ethics

Student Success Is Not Easily Defined

It’s also important to remember that each adult student has his or her own definition of academic success. Therefore, I purposefully avoid defining the term “success” to avoid the dangers involved in the practice of definition, including the definer’s tendency to engage in prescriptiveness and projection. 

Simply put, the process of definition may involve the act of limiting choice and ranking of options based on the preferences and views of the definer, and these are not my intentions. Students should have the ability to define their own meaning of academic success in their individual educational journey.   

Because each adult learner has an individual definition of academic success, a skilled educator – someone who is a subject matter expert and has a firm understanding of modern teaching and learning methods – must work with the student to ascertain how the student defines that success.

It is a fair assumption that students who enroll in one class or a degree program at an educational institution want to succeed in completing the course or program. So, instructors must do what they can to help adult learners achieve these goals.

Related: Should Humans Limit Advancements of Artificial Intelligence?

My Approach Is Not Prescriptive and Based on My Experience 

I have worked with many non-traditional students at the university level, including working adults, first-generation adult learners and minority students. My recommendations for forming relationships with students focuses on learners at the college level, rather than any other educational level.

For those educators looking for research into how relationship-building methods like greeting students and thanking students for their work can improve student engagement, Meagan Varga’s 2017 paper “The Effect of Teacher-Student Relationships on the Academic Engagement of Students” is a terrific starting point. 

My thoughts on this subject are also largely formed from a series of my relationships with professors who shaped my thoughts on the role of an educator. They also formed my opinions on the value of relationships between educators and students and between students themselves. 

It would be easy for readers to criticize this article as the product of my largely positive personal experiences in education and how they influenced my thinking, rather than scholarly research. These criticisms are fair. I hope that this article sparks further academic research into the large-scale feasibility and effectiveness of the ideas I’ve expressed.

Likewise, some may argue that this article doesn’t consider alternatives. Again, this argument is a fair criticism because my thoughts are not intended to be prescriptive or a one-size fits all approach. Educators effectively use a collection of different methods and techniques that are radically different from my ideas, and this approach is fine if these methods meet the individualized needs of their students.

Martin Buber’s Relationship-Based Approach to Life

With these caveats out of the way, let’s explore my influences. When I was a young college student in the 1990s, one of my professors, who wanted to challenge my views and expand my reading list, handed me a stack of books.

One of these books was Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” This book reflects the type of professor-to-student relationship for which I advocate.

Buber, a Austrian philosopher and theologian, was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. He emphasized the centrality of relationships in human development.

According to Buber, relationships allow people to develop a sense of empathy for each other, allowing people to see the world from the other person’s perspective. By understanding and appreciating the views of others, we have a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. In addition, we develop an appreciation of the beauty of creation and the value of life.  

To modern readers, Buber’s nearly century-old ideas with their religious underpinnings may seem to have little relevance to the contemporary digital classroom. But students’ academic success depends on reinforcing and deepening the relationships between students and between students and professors, as Buber advocated. 

The Modern Education System Is a Holdover of the Industrial Age

Many of the problems with modern education may derive from the fact that today’s educational model results from a different era. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was a need to develop an educational system to meet the needs of a society that was transforming from an agricultural to an industrial society.

In many ways, the modern educational model, influenced by the factory system of prior centuries and its focus on metrics, weakened the complex web of relationships from the tutor model of education. In this model, individual tutors educated the children from the higher echelons of society.

The tutor model of education featured a highly skilled instructor and a small group of students focusing on one or a collection of different subjects. This model provided students with instruction to meet their needs, and students had individualized learning and assessments.

In such a system, a student cannot hide in a crowded classroom, since the interaction between the student and professor forms the basis of this educational model. The tutor model also encouraged an active dialogue between the instructor and students, as well as allowing deep relationships to form. 

In the modern era, traces of the tutor model of education remain in the special education field and the graduate seminar course. Today’s educational system clearly recognizes that the tutor model effectively addresses the needs of gifted and talented students as well as students who need individualized help to catch up with their peers.

Some of the most prestigious universities in the world, including Oxford University, continue to use the tutor model of instruction. Academic research indicates that the tutor-based model can help students in a number of ways in various subjects, including law and English language training at the university level, according to Taylor and Francis Online and the International Journal of Language and Literary Studies.

While some educators view the tutor model as labor-intensive, it may find new life in the coming years as a method of educating the adult learner at the university level. 

Some critics also argue that the tutor model does not consider socioeconomic and cultural barriers that may prevent its widespread implementation. These objections may be valid for dealing with students in non-university educational institutions.

However, such criticism may not have merit when adult students have voluntarily opted to enroll in a higher education course. Clearly, those adult learners have demonstrated the motivation to further their education.

If an adult learner enrolls in a class or degree program, this student has demonstrated that he or she values education. It’s also reasonable to assume that adult learners want to forge relationships with their professors and peers.

Critics may also argue that the tutoring method is not feasible in current education, because it requires a great deal of time and effort to provide individualized instruction. For instance, it necessitates both highly skilled educators and a transformation of the relationship between teachers and students.

But this criticism overlooks the impact of how artificial intelligence and other future technological tools will transform the role of educators. Also, it ignores how digitalization has provided educators with the tools to make the tutoring method more feasible for a greater number of students than in the past.

Technology Like Artificial Intelligence Will Transform the Role of Educators

In recent years, there has been much discussion over how artificial intelligence will transform education, prompting Forbes to label 2023 as the Year of AI Education.

While some have welcomed artificial intelligence, many universities have implemented a series of measures – including changing teaching methods and assignments – in response to a real or perceived threat posed by artificial intelligence, according to the New York Times. The fear is that artificial intelligence will provide students with new ways to cheat.

Other schools including New York City’s school system, one of the largest in the United States, have banned the use of ChatGPT by students as well as educators. They fear the impact of artificial intelligence on skills development and the corruption of the educational process.

There is also the fear that artificial intelligence will dislocate educators. There is a generalized and often unspoken anxiety among many instructors that artificial intelligence will complete many of the tasks completed by educators, rendering many of those teachers redundant.

Much of the commentary surrounding the impact of artificial intelligence and its effect on education falsely assumes that educators will keep their educational methods the same in the face of the challenges posed by artificial intelligence. However, this outcome is not likely.

For example, a 2019 Harvard Business Journal article noted that artificial intelligence has the potential to unleash a level of personalization not possible in the past and will change teaching methods. Also, the emergence of artificial intelligence will likely free educators from many of the current tasks that occupy their time, a potentially promising development.

Despite the widespread fear, skilled educators need not dread artificial intelligence. These instructors will, hopefully, be able to focus their efforts on creating classrooms and experiences for the 21st century, deepening their relationships with their students, and encouraging peer-to-peer relationships. 

Some may argue that my assessment paints a rose-colored picture of education’s future and downplays the disruptive impact of artificial intelligence on education. However, these arguments assume that humans will not use their creativity to adapt to a different educational landscape. In addition, they also assume that students, at all educational levels, will accept any educational system that completely replaces human-to-human interaction.

Specific Recommendations for Developing Peer-to-Peer and Instructor-to-Peer Relationships

Despite the advent of artificial intelligence into education, instructors can use different methods to build relationships with their students and to create closer relationships between students.

The most common method is to provide mentorship to students. For example, students look to a professor to provide useful advice and for guidance on how to further their academic interests.  

Also, instructors can use Zoom calls to field questions, divide students into study groups or create group projects, and use discussion boards to develop conversational exchanges between students. Moreover, professors can view the assessment process as a conversation and dialogue, rather than a transaction.

Additionally, educators can more deeply invest in experiential learning. Experiential learning is focused on learning by doing, and it takes many forms. For instance, experiential learning includes diverse activities such as creative writing, debates, role-playing, acting, or participation in internships and extracurricular activities.

The use of experiential learning transforms students from passive recipients of information into active learners invested in their educational development. Most importantly, experiential learning allows students to develop relationships with peers and professors beyond focusing on their grades. Also, a professor can use experiential learning methods both inside and outside the classroom. 

Technology Enhances the Classroom Experience

In addition to mentorship and experiential learning, future educators must harness the power of technology like artificial intelligence to enhance the bond between students and teachers and between students. Technology allows for the creation of virtual communities for students.

For example, students can use digital tools to form study groups or pursue common interests. For instance, over the past years, I have acted as co-advisor for several student groups that have used telephone calls as well as audio-visual conference calls for different events.

These events ranged ranging from in-person participation in a moot court competition in Washington D.C. to the virtual attendance as participants in a Model NATO meeting hosted by an Ecuadorian nonprofit. Participants in these conferences developed stronger bonds with their peers, and I forged deeper bonds with my students. 

Artificial Intelligence and Other Technology in the Future

In the future, technology enhancements will create more opportunities for students to interact with their peers and educators as the line between online and in-person education further blurs. Wise educators will draw upon tools like artificial intelligence and adopt different methods to forge deeper and richer relationships.

However, instructors must always remember that education is built on relationships and take the appropriate actions that strengthen the complex web of relationships between peer students and between educators and students. While many educators and students are apprehensive about the future, the changes ushered in by new technologies like artificial intelligence will provide highly skilled educators with the opportunity to reinvent their roles to the ultimate benefit of adult learners.

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Dr. James Barney is a Professor of Legal Studies at the School of Security and Global Studies. Dr. Barney has been the recipient of several awards. He teaches undergraduate and graduate law and history courses. In addition to having earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Memphis, Dr. Barney has several master's degrees, including one in U.S. foreign policy and a J.D. from New York Law School. Dr. Barney serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity and the Model United Nations Club, and he is the pre-law advisor at the University. He is currently writing a book on the politics of New York City during the administration of David Dinkins, New York City's first African American mayor, 1989-1993.

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