AI is getting very popular among students and teachers, very quickly

Hyoung Chang | Denver Post | Getty Images

The American public as a whole remains on the fence with artificial intelligence, according to many polls, but in education, adoption among teachers and students is rapidly rising.

In a little over a year, the percentage of teachers who say they are familiar with ChatGPT — the breakthrough generative AI chatbot from Microsoft-backed OpenAI, which is next headed to the Apple iPhone — rose from 55% to 79%, while among K-12 students, it rose from 37% to 75%, according to a new poll conducted in May by Impact Research for the Walton Family Foundation, in conjunction with the Learning Engineering Virtual Institute‘s AI Lab.

When it comes to actual usage, a similar spike occurred, with 46% of teachers and 48% of students saying they use ChatGPT at least weekly, with student usage up 27 percentage points over last year.

Maybe most notable, the reviews from students are broadly positive. Seventy percent of K-12 students had a favorable view of AI chatbots. Among undergraduates, that rises to 75%. And among parents, 68% held favorable views of AI chatbots

“It is a lot more positive data than I expected,” said Ethan Mollick, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and an expert and author on AI who reviewed the polling data.

The polling data lines up with the experience of Khan Academy and its founder Sal Khan, who has been working with Newark, New Jersey’s school district, among others, to test the use of a customized ChatGPT for education, Khanmigo, over the past year. Khan recently told CNBC that its AI tool will expand from 65,000 students to one million students next year. It also recently announced that Microsoft is paying so that AI can be offered to teachers across the U.S. free of charge. (School districts pay per student for usage, which has recently been in the range of $35 per user, though Khan says as the technology scales, it will be possible to bring that price down to as low as a $10-$20 range.)

“Unlike most things in technology and education in the past where this is a ‘nice-to-have,’ I think this is a ‘must-have’ for a lot of teachers,” Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy, recently told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

While Khan Academy is best known for its educational videos, its interactive exercise platform was one which OpenAI’s top executives, Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, zeroed in on early when they were looking for a partner to pilot ChatGPT with that offered socially positive use cases.

The adoption rates in education are higher than currently occurring in the world of work, and it is students, who have a high incentive to get help, who are “dragging teachers along for the ride,” Mollick said.

In fact, teachers were the only demographic polled where year-over-year favorability declined, though a majority (59%) still have a positive view of AI chatbots.

Older teachers and parents (those over 45) were less likely to have confidence in their ability to use AI effectively, but Khan said one of the reasons why Microsoft and his nonprofit wanted to get AI access to every educator in the U.S. is because of the time its use is saving teachers.

Khan recently told CNBC that often, in the past, teachers have been told “If only you learned this one extra thing …” and that becomes a burden for an already overworked educator. “Teachers are already spread thin. Especially with these teacher tools, it is one more thing to learn,” he said. But Khan’s research with school districts to date has saved teachers 5-10 hours per week. “This is the first time in the journey of tech that we can tell teachers, ‘This will be fewer things for you to do. Yes, there’s a little bit of a learning curve, but it will save you time.'”

Only 25% of teachers polled said they have received any training on AI chatbots, and roughly one-third (32%) say that lack of training and professional development are major reasons why they have not used AI. Teachers said they have used AI to generate ideas for classes (37%); for lesson plans and preparation of teaching materials (32%); for student worksheets or examples (32%); and to create quizzes or tests (31%).

Mollick described himself as bullish on AI in education over the long term, but in the short term, he said these results are relatively high compared to past polling related to the introduction of new technology. “I was sort of surprised to see the numbers look as good as they do. I was surprised by how positive the feelings were among every group,” he said. “It’s not universally loved, but we’re not seeing the strong negatives we usually see,” he said.

It is early. Khan noted in his recent CNBC interview that the prime directive should be to never put technology in front of the use case. He said there are cases over past the 15 years where school districts have been able to “pretty dramatically accelerate outcomes because of technology, but many other cases where they bought the iPads and laptops and they are collecting dust.”

The new data also indicates significant equity in AI usage in education. Minority groups are adopting AI for education at higher rates, including the teachers and parents who are using AI to help children. Black and Hispanic K-12 students and undergraduates were more likely to use AI for school. Among parents, 47% of those polled want AI chatbots to be used more in schools, compared to 36% who want it to be used less. Parental support for AI use in education is higher among Black (57%) and Hispanic parents (55%).

Mollick said it is too early to attempt to piece together the economic and equity data conclusively — private school students were the most likely to use AI both personally and at school — but he added it’s worth taking a deeper dive into the data to ask whether AI could be filling existing gaps in the school system. “Now people have access to an AI tutor and now they don’t have to pay for a tutor,” he said.

Khan said AI for the classroom is a scaling of the personalization that matches the founding story of his organization — when he personally provided tutoring to his cousin Nadia. AI could “get us that much closer to this ideal, in conjunction with everything else we’ve been doing over the years, of being able to emulate what a great tutor would do,” he recently told CNBC. “In my mind, it passes the Turing Test,” Khan said, referencing famed British mathematician and AI pioneer Alan Turing’s goal of computer intelligence being equal to human intelligence and humans being unable to identify one versus the other. “This is indistinguishable from when I went to text Nadia back in 2004.”

AI and cheating

The results pose plenty of questions for educators and parents.

The value of in-class lectures is uncertain when a student can get all of the information from an AI, Mollick said, but the accuracy of an AI compared to a teacher, while generally good, remains an open question. “We need to be cautious about leaping all the way in,” he said.

Nearly 20% of teachers polled said ChatGPT had a negative impact, up from 7% last year.

There is no way to discuss AI in education without including its use in cheating, even though online cheating is nothing new. “Students are highly incentivized to cheat,” Mollick said, with too much work to do and not enough time to complete it. Historically, homework has been proven to increase student grades, but since the rise of online cheating, that link has deteriorated and AI could further degrade the value of homework.

K-12 students polled said they are most likely to have used AI chatbots to write essays and other assignments (56%), followed by studying for tests and quizzes (52%). 

Khan recently told CNBC that the way its gen AI tutoring system works is to keep a student within its walls, so to speak, while, for example, writing an essay, and the AI is able to identify whether progress in the work can be attributed to the student, and flag to the teacher any sign of cheating.

New monitoring systems will present their own set of issues, Mollick said — and new ways for students to figure out how to get around the checks.

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