Avoiding the Pitfalls of AI in Virtual Exchanges
It’s the conversation everyone’s having: Artificial Intelligence. And we’re all somewhere on this spectrum: on one extreme, you’re harnessing its power, thinking of ways that you can increase your productivity, and pivoting in your teaching and assessment methods because you’re darn sure that if you’re using AI, your students are too. Then, on the other extreme are colleagues who say things like, “I’ve heard it can do _______.” When I hear people say that, it’s a dead giveaway that their heads are in the sand, and they’ve never tried to create an image, edit it, or use a Large Language Model (LLM) to workshop ideas, or churn out worksheets and problem sets. There are still teachers out there who are still expecting their students to go home and write an essay from title to closing using nothing but a dictionary and the honor system. Pretending AI isn’t everywhere is vintage and retro, but it’s also a recipe for disappointment. As the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in education continues to surge, it brings with it a unique set of challenges for students and teachers alike. Wherever you lie on the AI continuum, from cultist techno-acolyte to ostrich non-believer, I want to explore with you the pitfalls of AI in virtual student exchanges and delve into some unexpected yet effective strategies for educators to avoid these pitfalls.
Overreliance on AI for Communication
One common pitfall in virtual student exchanges is the overreliance on AI tools for communication. While AI can facilitate language translation and even simulate human conversation, it lacks the nuance and cultural sensitivity that students need to truly understand and appreciate their peers. Don’t get me wrong—some amazing tools are in their nascent forms right now that will connect us like never before: at the time of writing this, a rapid arms race to fashion mass-produced wearables like the Humane AI Pin, which would translate in real time a user’s words in their actual recreated voice. Goodbye, foreign language department—am I right?! To counter this, teachers will need to incorporate virtual cultural immersion experiences that focus more on culture, content, and micro narratives, such as online cooking classes, collaborative art projects, or virtual city tours, to supplement AI communication tools.
This last bit about the eradication of language barriers also potentially could lead us to…
Perpetuating Language Inequities
AI language translation tools may unintentionally reinforce language hierarchies, favoring more widely spoken languages and marginalizing others. I heard today via a podcast called the AI Breakdown that the government of Iceland recently agreed to work with Open AI to furnish future Chat GPT iterations with a data set that would further allow it to learn and function in Icelandic. But, I mean, that’s a pretty remarkable story, and I think more of a notable exception than the rule. To address this issue, teachers will want to introduce students to lesser-known languages and dialects, actively seeking out AI tools that support linguistic diversity. This not only promotes inclusivity but also fosters a deeper appreciation for the richness of global languages. And, perhaps, these topics can become a focus point in virtual cultural exchanges that might foster in students a newfound interest in hyperlocal idioms and colloquial regional expressions?
Getting away from the macro narrative and focusing on what makes small communities unique and special will have to be the trend; otherwise, we risk…
Cultural Homogenization Through Personalized Content
While AI excels at tailoring content to individual preferences, there’s a risk of inadvertently creating cultural bubbles. I mean, with sites like YouTube and TikTok, we’re already there, and I think we know well how other platforms, like Facebook, can perpetually serve up a dish of fresh fake news to scurry back and consume in our decked-out echo chambers. This could go similarly for education: AI algorithms might prioritize content that aligns with students’ existing beliefs and interests, limiting exposure to diverse perspectives. To counteract this, teachers will have to always encourage students to explore topics outside their comfort zones by incorporating “randomizer” tools that suggest unexpected cultural or historical subjects for exploration. Or, as will increasingly become the role of the educator in this wildly evolving digital landscape, teachers will have to steward their students in avoiding the ease of algorithms and fostering autonomy in their own, autodidactic learning.
In fact, knowing when to turn off the magic of AI and technology will be one of our greatest charges, as we avoid…
AI-Induced Technological Dependence
Excessive reliance on AI tools may inadvertently lead to technological dependence, where students struggle to communicate without the aid of algorithms. To counteract this, teachers have been organizing “digital detox” days, challenging students to engage in communication without the use of AI tools. This not only promotes resilience and adaptability but also encourages a mindful approach to technology use. Personally, this is a big one for me, as I’m finding students less and less able to navigate the classroom without some sort of applied technology; and so, that liminal space where students find themselves challenged marks where I want to spend my classroom time. I’ve been a pretty strong advocate of genuine curiosity fueling virtual learning over simply reciting information on camera, and I think that kids feeling lost, ignorant, or unsure can be a real fertile ground for learning cultural empathy.
And, if not checked, I’m afraid that sometimes our obsession with technology can too often lead us to…
Isolation and Lack of Social Skills Development
Excessive use of AI in virtual exchanges may inadvertently isolate students from face-to-face interactions, hindering the development of essential social skills. Jon Rubin, founder of the Collaborative Online International Learning program at SUNY, alludes to this in an interview on the Tea for Teaching podcast, calling it the “disembodiment” phenomenon. With all the fun AI tools coming out for content creators that can now animate your virtual likeness, mimic your voice with text-to-speech, and create virtual backgrounds, students could actually start to shave away any authenticity and cultural significance to their videos. A young woman might not want to show the kitchen behind her as she films herself, but in summoning a fake backdrop of a beach, or the Milky Way, she has now obfuscated certain cultural and familial icons and artifacts that might inspire further meaningful conversation. To address this, teachers might have to organize virtual “meet and greet” sessions where students engage in unstructured, informal conversations. These sessions can mimic the casual interactions that occur in traditional exchanges, fostering the development of social skills in a digital environment, and letting the students show pieces of their history as illustrations of their rich cultural traditions.
Look, like it or not, whether you’re an Andreessen Horowitz Techno-Optimist, or a Doomsday prophet, bemoaning all things tech to everyone who will still listen, AI is one genie that’s not going back in the bottle without a fight. So, as virtual student exchanges become more prevalent, it’s crucial for educators to navigate the pitfalls of AI thoughtfully. By recognizing the limitations of AI, incorporating unconventional strategies, and actively promoting cultural understanding, teachers can transform virtual exchanges into enriching, authentic learning experiences that prepare students for the interconnected world of the future. Best we start talking about how these tools can help us, and in some cases, how they might also water down the experience for our students; we owe it to our pupils to help them harness these incredible tools and get them where they need to go!