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NCCE Digital Skills Forum - How can education cast light on the 'magic' of AI?

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How can education shed light on the ‘magic’ of AI? This was the theme of the first NCCE’ Digital Skills Forum which brought together experts from industry and education for a webinar, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Education.

The session looked at the challenges, and opportunities which AI presents to our education system, young people and the employers of the future.

Watch - NCCE Digital Skills Forum , AI and the future of education

“AI is everywhere, but are we preparing young people with an understanding of the critical strengths and weaknesses of AI systems and what dialogue do we need between educators and employers?” said the webinar’s chair, Beverly Clarke, National Community Manager for Computing at School.

It was a theme explored in depth by the panel: Prof Simon Peyton Jones of Microsoft research and Chair of the NCCE, Heather Picov of Apps for Good, educationalist and teacher Dr Jon Chippindall  and Dr Zoe Webster of BT.

“The challenge is that it can all seem like magic,” said Prof Simon Peyton Jones, who called for young people to be equipped with a sense of agency and the ability to make well-informed judgements about digital tools.

“The danger is that young people will see computers as a form of magic created by people far away over whom we have no control.  And AI, in particular, really does seem like magic – self driving cars, designing circuits, recognising things --- and this is something a computer has learnt to do it by itself. The role of education is to let light in on the magic.”

An understanding of AI is founded on a full range of computer science skills.

“Computer Science is study of computation, information and communication,” said Simon.  “Children need a foundational understanding of computer science just as they need foundational understanding of natural science.  To do that, we need to teach our existing curriculum well, but there is scope for a shift in emphasis.  We tend to focus on computation, and not so much on information and data which are especially important for AI. The AI revolution is giving a welcome boost to the information and data side of computer science. AI asks computers to look at data to generalise patterns from it  - which is mind-stretching stuff. I’d like children get to grips with that and understand its strengths and weaknesses. If children see machine-learning as ‘magic pixie dust’ and know nothing about data bias or over-fitting or spoofing you are liable to create machine-learning solutions that are inappropriate to the task.”

Heather Picov is CEO of Apps for Good, a global charity which has delivered a machine learning course to thousands of students. That experience has shown seven key ways to inspire students, explained Heather:

  • Don’t start with the tech, start with what tech can do and how it can solve problems and be creative and collaborative
  • Keep it relevant and show how AI impacts students’ daily lives
  • Ethics really interests students - talk about issues of equality, fairness, use of data, and more
  • Start early and ensure its accessible. Our machine learning course starts at Y9
  • Bring industry into the classroom. Volunteers from industry are a useful scaffolding for teachers, as well as help to motivate students and boost their confidence
  • Support teachers – teachers are really inspired and want to upskill, especially so during the pandemic
  • Young people’s creativity is endless. They work in teams looking at a problem, protype and pitch.

Read more details of Apps for Good’s seven tips and Heather’s presentation

“We’ve seen students work together showing teamwork, creativity and resilience and coming up with their own idea for the product. We ask them to work on a project that means something to them. We’ve seen some really creative projects such as making revision easier, reusing everyday materials, making ultrasounds more efficient and accessible and that we can engage a truly diverse group of young people with machine learning,” said Heather.

Dr Jon Chippindall, teacher, academic and CAS community leader, spoke about tools which primary schools are using to bring machine learning into the classroom.

“The national curriculum talks about the need for children to be digitally literate at a level suitable for the future workforce.  We should be looking at how to  adapt so that pupils should be able to evaluate new and unfamiliar technologies,” he said.

“We want our pupils to be able to say ‘its not magic that my phone can identify photos of my friends’ – that’s AI and machine learning.”
Jon talked about CAS in a box on AI, the toolkit of online resources put together by Computing at School, which is available to teach primary aged children AI techniques and process.

“The challenge is to broaden the teaching of AI as much as possible. It’s about boosting teacher confidence by enhancing their technological subject knowledge; their awareness of increasing application of AI in the world around them and developing teaching approaches for introducing these concepts,” he said.

Dr Zoe Webster is Artificial Intelligence Director in BT’s Data and AI Solutions team. Zoe, who also studied AI at degree and post-graduate level, is a school governor and parent of two young children, spoke about the similarities between education and employment around the use of AI.

She focussed on governance and accountability;  skills and training; and diversity.

“Governance and accountability is vital, especially wherever AI is applied to recognise patterns or support decision-making whether that’s in the healthcare, criminal justice system, or education.  We need to be clear that AI is a tool for people to use, but we shouldn’t abdicate accountability or responsibility and it’s vital we equip people with the tools to understand AI and its limitations.

“Regarding skills and training,  we’re going to see AI used more in industry both in back-end functions such as HR and legal, but also customer-facing products and services where AI can help to personalise products and services. This will have an impact on the type of tasks people will have to do. If AI is used more to detect health conditions, for instance, what impact does that have on how we need to train health professionals? It’s often when you combine human expertise with AI that the highest performance is achieved.  We therefore need to think about the kinds of tasks that Humans and AI are better suited to - and guide education accordingly.

AI also has a role in education. It can help to personalise education – whether that learner is in school, college or the workplace. I think there’s a lot of potential here.

We also need more diversity in the work force to ensure AI performs well in the workplace and is trusted.Education has a key role to play in providing a diverse workforce to ensure AI performs well and is inclusive.

“Role models are important, and I know that personally. I had a female A-level teacher who encouraged me to take computing A level when I was considering my options. AI diversity also comes from diversity of thought - other disciplines have a part to play in successful AI development and adoption, such as social sciences, economics, law, anthropology and others. A broad view will lead to a diverse workforce.”

The Digital Skills Forum, is a new monthly series of online events hosted by The National Centre for Computing Education that brings together expert speakers from industry and education for a lively discussion looking at how we can work together effectively.Join us for the next session on Thursday 8 July, 4.30pm looking at Digital Skills and the Future of Work.