AI Might Save Teachers Time. But What Is the Cost?

As an educator reading headline after headline about AI in education, it’s hard to not get lost in an existential tailspin to the tune of Billie Eilish’s “What was I made for?” (if AI can do all of this.)

Integrating generative AI into education is complex. The field of AI is the Wild West right now — we’re working it out as we go. As an assistant professor of edtech, I often think about the implications of AI on teaching and learning, especially as I experiment with implementing various practices and approaches with the pre-service educators I teach.

I’m excited about the potential AI holds, yet one part of the equation that gives me pause is the notion of time. It’s no surprise as my favorite movies have this as a theme. “Benjamin Button,” “About Time” and the “Back to the Future” trilogy all leave me thinking about what it means to be alive and to live a good life with the time we have.

In a recent book exploring the influence of generative AI on teacher education, two researchers, Punya Mishra and Marie K. Heath posed a question that I can’t seem to shake. “What does it mean for learners to trade off the zone of proximal development for ease of access to the creation of knowledge?” Mishra and Heath admit they don’t have the answer, but say they think it’s an important question for educators and scholars to consider.

The question has left me wondering if in our pursuit of reducing the time it takes to do things, we’ve forgotten to consider the value of the experience we gain in the time it takes to do them.

My curiosity about AI goes beyond my work, seeping into life at home. Recently my husband and I worked for over an hour clearing off our garden. As I kneeled on the ground, hands in the dirt, my muscles became sore, and I found myself thinking — and not thinking — as I chipped away at the space. I noticed my thoughts going in and out of loving and hating gardening.

Hours later, I couldn’t help thinking about the value of that time spent working. I felt satisfied as I washed my hands to remove the remaining dirt. This kind of time-consuming home improvement task is often depicted on social media outlets in time-lapse videos. Scroll Instagram and TikTok, and you’ll find someone flipping their garden, painting a wall or renovating a room. These scrollable nuggets show before-and-after visuals from the project in a flash. They’re gratifying to watch, but these videos provide only an echo of the satisfaction you feel when looking at the finished product of your own hard work.

Time is an obvious part of our lives, but we don’t often think about how it shapes us. It often passes without us knowing, much like the fish who didn’t recognize water in David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, we are swimming in time, not noticing it as it passes.

Yes, there are machines that could clear my garden, and in the midst of hard work, I would have gladly passed off the task. And yet, as I look at a hard task done well, I feel good — more alive somehow. I know my garden and myself better.

There’s a term I love that gets at this idea.“Meraki” is a Greek word that describes “doing something with soul, creativity, or love — when you put ‘something of yourself’ into what you’re doing.” My mom’s homemade quilt is different from the one I can buy at Walmart. There’s a reason we put hand-written words into store-bought cards.

In a 2023 interview, professional basketball player Caitlin Clark shared about where her confidence stems from. “The time I put in in the gym, the hours working on my game, it just kind of builds my confidence up.” Is Clark different if she somehow magically and quickly knows how to shoot? Is the patina of her experience as valuable as she thinks and moves on the court?

I’m not against using AI. In fact, I think it has enormous potential to augment our human creativity and to support effective teaching and learning. But too often, in discussions around AI in education, we get stuck on the notion of cheating and miss out on more interesting questions: How can these new tools make us more creative? Can these tools make us more human, not less? So much depends on intention and how we choose to use them.

When I learned to do citations as a high school student, our teacher required that we physically make the citations using index cards, even while it was possible to have a citation generator churn them out. As much as I hated it, I have a depth of understanding of how citations work because I built them by hand. Is that a valuable concept to know? That’s arguable, but I’m not debating that here. Instead, I’m challenging us as educators to keep thinking about what we gain and lose as we pursue intentional AI use.

What does it mean for work to be done so quickly? What is the cost? In his essay, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change,” Neil Postman, an educator and social critic, wrote “every technology has a prejudice,” adding that “it predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments.” Postman explained the importance of memory in a culture without writing, but how in a culture with writing, memory is considered a waste of time. “The writing person favors logical organization and systematic analysis, not proverbs. The telegraphic person values speed, not introspection. The television person values immediacy, not history. And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom.”

What values, I wonder, will fall by the wayside as we become AI-using humans?

As AI becomes more mainstream, it leads me to philosophical questions, but on a practical level, I find it interesting that so many of the things I’ve learned that matter to me the most were hard. They took effort. They took time. Learning them was rewarding.

I don’t want to forget how satisfying it feels to clear off a garden, to grow stronger at something through extended practice or to create something from scratch. I don’t want our schools to forget either. As Tom Hanks says in, “A League of Their Own,” “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”

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