The Near-term Impact of Generative AI on Education, in One Sentence

Preparing to participate in a panel on generative AI and education at this week’s AECT convention gave me the excuse to carve out some dedicated time to think about the question, “how would you summarize the impact generative AI is going to have on education?” This question is impossible to answer over the medium to long-term, but maybe I could give an answer addressing the near-term?

My approach to this question was to look for a different, comparable example and try to work my way into the question from that more familiar territory. The internet seems like the obvious choice here, as no other recent advance can even begin to compare to the potential impact generative AI will have.

If I had to summarize the impact the internet (not computers, but the internet) has had on education in a single sentence, it would be something like “the internet greatly decreases the degree to which time and distance are obstacles to education.” While it’s a simple statement, I would argue that 30 years later we’re still struggling to fully unpack its implications. We certainly haven’t fully harnessed these time-shifting and place-shifting superpowers to their fullest extent yet in the service of student learning.

This “decreasing obstacles” framing turned out to be helpful in thinking about generative AI. When the time came, my answer to the panel question, “how would you summarize the impact generative AI is going to have on education?” was this: 

“Generative AI greatly reduces the degree to which access to expertise is an obstacle to education.”

We haven’t even started to unpack the implications of this notion yet, but hopefully just naming it will give the conversation focus, give people something to disagree with, and help the conversation progress more quickly.

What does it mean for education that, at any point when a learner needs an answer to a question, needs a different explanation, needs another example, needs some practice, needs some feedback, or needs any of the myriad other things that someone with expertise in a discipline could provide in support of their learning, they have immediate access to that expertise? (Also, keep in mind that disciplinary expertise includes expertise in pedagogy, ethics, etc.)  Our current instructional design approaches assume that access to expertise is scarce, expensive, and delayed. That’s why we “capture” disciplinary expertise in “content” – so we can economically provide access to expertise to learners. But what if access to expertise was abundant, cheap, and immediate? If your students have access to the internet, that’s the world your students are now living in. How should that fact change the design of your instruction?