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The Role of AI in Primary Education in South Africa

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AI is here to stay and is disrupting every industry, from accounting to interior design and, of course, education. Angela Schaerer, Digital Transformation Manager at Curro Holdings, JSE-listed South African independent school provider, provides her insights on the future of AI in Education and what that might look like for students and educators as digital transformation begins to overtake every aspect of modern life. Her primary point is that because AI is becoming so embedded in our society, learners’ need to know how to use it and stresses the importance for the educators role in guiding them to use it responsibly and confidently.

Schaerer says, “AI technology has already been integrated into various platforms that learners use daily, like Google search, Microsoft’s translation, transcripts, chatbots and autocorrect, as well as social media translation tools. Just as preventing learners from using Google for research was an impractical idea a few years ago, avoiding or blocking ChatGPT doesn’t make sense now.”

Concerns about Cheating and Plagiarism

One of the main concerns that educators today have with the new technology, is the possibility of learners using AI for cheating. Schaerer says blocking the use of AI tools will not stop plagiarism and cheating and that the responsibility of getting learners to use ChatGPT and similar tools for support and not to cheat lies mainly with teachers and parents.

“Teachers especially play a crucial role in ensuring that learners process and synthesise information effectively, regardless of whether they were inspired by generative AI,” she says. “We need to keep educating ourselves about new technologies as they continue to revolutionise the world, and consider how to harness their value while managing their inappropriate use. A lack of understanding and training of the tools will make it difficult for a parent or teacher to manage use appropriately or be able to monitor use by children or learners.”

The value of teachers and AI

While discussions around AI in education often focus on cheating or on teachers’ fears of being replaced, AI offers many exciting opportunities for educators and learners alike.

“Teachers may be afraid that AI may replace their roles but we know that although technology and AI undoubtedly play a significant role in education, it doesn’t replace the vital role of teachers, Schaerer says. “During challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic, it became evident that the human connection and guidance teachers provide are critical. Teachers have empathy, inspire learners, and offer social and emotional support that goes beyond the confines of the curriculum or what AI is able to provide. They should be encouraged to embrace AI to help them in their jobs.”

For example, she says, teachers can use ChatGPT to assist with ideas for lesson plans, or incorporate it into their own research processes, while learners can use AI platforms to better understand concepts taught in class. “A teacher isn’t always available after hours to ask clarifying questions or to help explain a concept or process in a simple way. But ChatGPT, Bard and Chat are,” says Schaerer.

In the near future, AI might be used to speed up marking (and even the release of Matric results); to personalise learning per individual; to gamify learning for improved engagement; and to improve accessibility (for example, speech-to-text and text-to-speech applications can assist students with reading and writing difficulties). AI can also assist with identifying students who need additional support early on by analysing patterns in their learning behaviours and performance. AI can also assist educators with making informed, data-driven decisions.

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