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Neil Butcher's blog

19 April 2024

False promises about ‘AI’ in education

I spent time this week with members of the NBA team preparing for the launch of Encounters with Life and Death, a new book in which I reflect on some of most important learning experiences in my human journey and how they have transformed my approach to life. As part of this, I used Copilot, a new tool in Microsoft Office, to help me to build a generic slide deck summarizing the key messages from the book.

Using the combination of Copilot and PowerPoint’s Designer tool, in just an hour, I was able to produce a high-quality slide deck that I felt summarized the key issues well and can be used in future to tailor specific presentations when needed. Without those tools, it would have taken me at least a day of work to do this, if not more, so the annual subscription to Copilot has already paid for itself in terms of time saved. This only worked as well as it did because the source content was in good shape (I am biased, of course) and I knew exactly what I wanted to produce. But this demonstrated clearly that tools like this are going to yield significant productivity gains for individuals who learn how to use them effectively. In this regard, they will join a long list of productivity tools that I have harnessed to make me more efficient and productive: word processing documents, spreadsheets, email, online banking and accounting platforms, and web search, amongst others. It is equally clear that these tools will make certain kinds of work unnecessary, as have many of their predecessors.

Given this, I suppose it is not surprising that the world of education is abuzz with chatter about how these tools – all conveniently but lazily grouped under the broad title of Artificial Intelligence or AI – are going to transform education systems. The grandiose labelling of AI might be a topic for a separate post, given how it implies that we are artificially recreating human intelligence even though we have so little real understanding of how human intelligence works (I explore this in Chapter 3 of Encounters with Life and Death) and new discoveries are continually disproving much of what we thought we did know.

ChatGPT was only launched in November, 2022 but, by 2021, UNESCO had already launched a full publication entitled AI and Education that provides guidance to policy-makers. It seems a remarkable achievement that the world’s largest educational intergovernmental organization already felt confident enough in its understanding of the educational use of technologies about which we know so little and whose potential wider social impact is so little understood to offer unequivocal policy guidance on their use to governments. Having worked in educational policy for many years, my instinct is that it will be several years before we know enough about these issues to be clear about the policy implications.

Similarly, last week, UNESCO, Global Education Coalition, the World Bank, and the Global Partnership for Education partnered with Microsoft to host the ‘Education Innovators Forum: Harnessing Digital Transformation with AI to Solve Global Challenges’. Let’s leave aside the dilemma that these leading global agencies in the world of education have chosen to partner with a company that has been one of the biggest commercial gainers from AI and thus has a deeply vested interest in persuading government policymakers that its tools will solve all manner of social problems. What is clear from the agenda of this forum is that the ‘AI in education’ bandwagon is in full motion and all manner of high-level organizations and experts have climbed on board to extol how we are on the verge of radical education transformation. In a similar vein, the International Council for Open and Distance Education is dedicating its 2024 Leadership Summit to Ethical Leadership in the Age of AI: Rethinking Futures of Education. These are just two examples that illustrate how rapidly AI has become the dominant topic of conversation in global educational discussions.

That should sound wonderful to me! Except that I’ve heard promises about radical impending educational change many times before, and I can hear hardly anything in the messages about the coming transformative impact of AI on education that sounds any different from promises that were made every time a new technology was released in the 30 years of my educational career (and that I myself made repeatedly). Online learning, mobile learning, open courseware, social media, online search, augmented and virtual reality, and blockchain technology are just examples of technologies that have been subject to varying degrees of this hype. They have promised radical educational transformation – and yet all the large education systems in which I work remain stubbornly untransformed.

These promises are rife everywhere. For example, I recently watched videos from the ASU+GSV Summit 2024 (a partnership between Global Silicon Valley and Arizona State University) and saw slides promising technology-driven educational change that I could have extracted almost verbatim from presentations I made to the South African Department of Education in the mid-1990s. They promise to provide access to high-quality learner-centred education to everyone very cheaply and simultaneously threaten decision-makers that ignoring these technologies will consign whole generations of young learners to the economic scrapheap. And the messages are always accompanied by the early adopters, those talented educators who are so passionate about using technology that they really do work wonders in their own classrooms – and show how the technologies helped them do this. But the evidence of fulfilment of promises of these kinds in education systems globally over time proves to be very hard to find.

In a research process of the World Bank that I supported relatively recently, we struggled to find many studies that explored the impact of Educational Technology (EdTech) at scale but what we did find indicated that ‘the effect size tends to diminish as the intervention scale increases’. The dearth of large-scale studies is, in my experience, not hard to explain. Governments are understandably reluctant to allow such research because it risks demonstrating that their large investments in EdTech had no or even potentially negative impact on learning outcomes. I have watched many government officials at first hand simply shutting down the space for evaluations of this kind. The financial wastage on unfulfilled promises of transformation is mind-boggling and very poorly documented.

When I see patterns like this repeating themselves, I quickly become less interested in the substance of the sales pitch and much more interested in what is motivating people to make that sales pitch. Why do they seek to manipulate other people by constructing such compelling and persuasive arguments? As is often the case, these reasons are multiple and varied in the case of AI, and often well-intentioned (many of the people doing this are my friends and colleagues, for whom I have the highest professional respect).

At the most obvious level, technology and EdTech companies are trying to build new markets for themselves and outcompete their peers (and, of course, let’s not worry about how much electricity is needed to drive those technologies). Importantly, participating in, and often funding, educational discussion forums on AI is a good way to build markets and give legitimacy to the technologies in which they are investing. EdTech experts also have clear motivations to punt the transformative potential in AI, as their reputations are based on persuading people that they have new knowledge that other people need to know and are on the cutting edge of educational ‘change’. For some individuals (and I was one of these), it can also be important to show that their skills and services are desperately required either to stave off disaster or to avoid missing out on the next amazing opportunity. Early adopters in education also have some reasonably clear motivations, as they feel the adulation that comes with presenting their successes on global or local stages of varying kinds and are often rewarded materially in many ways to continue their work.

Possibly more confusing is why government decisionmakers and the development partners that support them are so optimistic about the transformative potential of AI given that EdTech has an abject track record historically of solving any serious educational problems on scale. My view is that their interest is sustained, at least in part, because it is easier to believe that one of these technologies truly will become the magic bullet that transforms education than it is to accept that serious transformation of education systems requires a complete reconfiguration of the parameters on which those systems are based. None of these parameters have any direct relationship to new EdTech, but the problem is that this reconfiguration frankly seems impossible currently to most systems planners. Engaging with and investing in new technologies at least creates the impression that serious efforts at systemic reform are underway, even while those systems remain dehumanizing, dysfunctional, and largely disconnected from any kind of learning that would truly empower learners as fully rounded human beings.

None of the kinds of learning experiences that I think are most important to navigate the information society effectively require technology to be made available to learners – but we instead believe that it will help to use new technologies to improve how we deliver learning experiences that are increasingly irrelevant and often traumatic. And we don’t even have good evidence to support that belief! Alternatively, we tend to fear the new technology and how it will undermine our current education systems, as those who are concerned about proliferation of AI-generated plagiarism exemplify. Neither of these seems particularly helpful to me.

In Encounters with Life and Death, I have explored personal experiences that have taught me essential lessons on what it means to truly connect with my own humanity and live a life of purpose. None of these essential lessons is new; most have been codified in human wisdom in various forms for centuries. We talk of education as a human right, but I simply cannot see much evidence that we honour the kinds of learning experiences that seek to teach these humanizing lessons and enable meaningful human connections with ourselves and with others.

If we are serious about helping people to navigate and thrive in the information society, I think we should be focusing on changing education systems so that they create opportunities for deep, meaningful learning instead of buying into false promises that spending money on new technologies will ‘fix’ those systems. Changing the core parameters on which education systems design is based is going to be exceptionally challenging, but it can be done if enough people believe change is possible – or if social crisis forces the change.

My commitment in the coming months is to develop and use this new information platform on the NBA website to explore what such change would look like, as well as to confront the challenge of real systems transformation daily through the work that I do in education. I suspect that this will trigger many people who remain devoutly committed to our current models of education and place ongoing belief in the transformative potential of technology and other similar cosmetic interventions. I have spent 30 years observing (and living) the limitations of these beliefs and can no longer sustain the illusion that this is fulfilling for me personally, nor that it will lead to more humane, empowering systems of learning around the world. Thus, while my commitment currently feels vaguely Quixotic, it also feels like the only way forward professionally that resonates with my personal spiritual journey as a human being.

If you would like to join me on this journey, please follow me on Instagram or LinkedIn and join in the conversation.

Neil Butcher

Neil Butcher

Neil was born and grew up in Johannesburg in South Africa during the final years of apartheid. He began a career in education after university studies and was privileged to work in an education NGO during South Africa’s transition to democracy and beyond. During this time, he founded Neil Butcher & Associates, where he still works today. He is privileged to have been able to travel extensively throughout the world during his career, an opportunity that has provided him unique opportunities to engage with many cultures and appreciate the extraordinary diversity of the world in which we live. 

Neil is passionate about helping governments, development partners, and educational institutions to reform education systems to enable people and societies to achieve their full human potential. Having worked in education in developing countries across the globe for over 30 years, Neil recognizes that there are no simple formulae for educational reform; each context is unique, as are the people who inhabit it. Thus, providing service to initiatives focused on education reform requires willingness to listen and understand what is most important, combined with a patient conviction that transformation, no matter how difficult it may seem, is possible.