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  • Writer's pictureAren Cohen

Sal Khan’s Artifical Intelligence Blind Spot

Recently Khan Academy sent an email announcing a new course titled “What does AI mean for education?” Education and tech entrepreneur Sal Khan gave a talk to the Harvard Graduate School of Education in January, and since then the landscape has changed significantly with the launches of ChatGPT-4, Microsoft’s Bing and others. I thought it would be interesting to see what this course was all about. Here’s a review:

Khan Academy’s “What does AI mean for education?” is cautiously enthusiastic about the future of AI and education. The three part course has nine modules introducing and sharing initial thoughts and “best practices.” Mr. Khan feels strongly that schools should not ban ChatBots and the course offers initial ideas and considerations as students and educators learn how to utilize ChatBots in educational settings, sharing the research of early adopter and Wharton Professor Ethan Mollik.

My concern, listening to news this week about the newest updates to AI platforms, is that the Khan Academy course is not comprehensive and possibly already runs the risk of being “dated.” I appreciate how the syllabus addresses issues of AI hallucinations (when the programs make up information), ways to work interactively with AI to produce best results, both in terms of learning outcomes and written product, and issues of academic honesty. I suppose I also appreciate what seems like a bit of a disclaimer from Khan:

This is a new learning experience where the student does the work while the AI helps them to develop their critical thinking skills.
Human judgment, discernment and reason remain out of the reach of AI. Humanity needs to develop these skills as much as ever—arguably more than ever. (Khan Academy)

I am wary that this enthusiasm may have a gaping blindspot. When Khan talked in January about excitedly about guiding his own children through using ChatGPT, he may have underestimated the power of his presence in the experience. As they explored, Sal brought his lifetime of “judgement, discernment and reason” to bear. Both deliberately and inadvertently, that shaped what his children learned from their trial and error explorations of finding ways to optimize the experience with the ChatBot. As I heard Khan speak, I wondered what age his children are. Would he have let them explore ChatBot without his supervision? At the Khan Lab School, a K-12 private school in Palo Alto founded by Mr. Khan, at what grades do they plan to introduce AI in the classroom?

I want to be excited about AI, but I also recognize that, especially in education, it may behoove us to proceed with caution. Many years ago, around the time the Internet first went mainstream, I worked at a venture capital fund that invested in education technology. At the time, there were concerns for children’s safety, so in 1998, Congress passed COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act. Today, COPPA seems woefully insufficient. As the Biden Administration considers banning TikTok and struggles with the information provided by Frances Haugen, the Facebook and Instagram whistleblower, it is clear that technology has all sorts of unintended consequences, for our children and our society.

The Khan Academy course focuses mainly on AI’s use in college and graduate classrooms, citing work from Wharton and Montclair State University, but surely we are sophisticated enough to know that ChatBots won’t just affect college age students. As Khan Academy asks “What does AI mean for education?” my response is to shout from the rooftops: “Who is thinking about how and when AI is introduced into K-12 classrooms?” and “What sort of curriculum needs to be developed to teach this new technology ethically and effectively?” As educators put these new tools to use with children in schools, let's be sure to ask clarifying questions, not just about use cases but also about developmental fit. AI is a powerful tool. We need a circumspect approach as we teach students the skills they need to meet the challenges it will present.


Education Now | Sal Khan on Innovations in the Classroom, HGSE YouTube Channel, Jan. 25, 2023


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