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18 September 2020

Can artificial intelligence actually make classroom discussion better?

By Doreen Fisher-Bammer, Ed.D., associate provost of virtual learning, at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College
Published in the League for Innovation blog, Sept. 17, 2020

For millennia, the Socratic method has been a pillar of effective, engaging classroom discussion. Rooted in sparking thoughtful dialogue among learners, it has been touted as the type of “authentic learning” that may help higher education recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many instructors feel apprehensive about creating effective discussions in this radically changed environment. If designed intentionally and implemented thoughtfully, technology can play a role in facilitating more effective discussion than face-to-face classes.
Faculty and students alike tend to think of online discussion forums as not just time-consuming, but boring. In the words of WestEd’s Cameron Sublett, the pandemic may lead instructors to “populate their [learning management system] LMS shells with asynchronous online discussion forums and have time and resources for little else. The consequence will almost certainly be decreased learning and increased inequity.”
Regardless of student and instructor misgivings, the prospect of remote learning as the “new normal” is beginning to sink in. While students may have given their schools leeway during the hectic spring 2020 semester, they now expect a high-quality experience. If we remain confined to the Zoom classrooms and stilted forums that characterized the first few months of the pandemic, won’t that spell doom for any meaningful class discussion? That may not be the case.
To be sure, the COVID-19 crisis will continue to reshape the landscape of higher education, but online class does not mean that effective discussion is impossible. Emerging approaches to technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), rooted in core academic concepts like inquiry-based learning and self-determination theory, have helped students at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, overcome fears surrounding the online classroom.
The reality is that in many cases, face-to-face discussion can be a challenging way for students to engage. The classic scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is a reality for many instructors, who find that students are often reluctant to share untested ideas in a public forum. It can take time to think of a good question, and many classes have evolved to do everything in their power to avoid the all-too-frequent “awkward pause.” Furthermore, research indicates that implicit biases may prevent women and Black students from speaking up, allowing their White male peers to dominate the discussion experience.
While higher education pundits often talk about technology as the great destroyer of face-to-face interaction, HACC has applied AI in ways that enhance classroom discussion. Asynchronous discussions that don’t require an answer right away can be a means to facilitate deeper, more meaningful conversation – with the right tools to encourage students to make the most of that extra time. AI-powered platforms help by providing students real-time feedback that clarifies their thinking. For instance, Packback’s “curiosity score” motivates students to ask tougher questions and find more compelling sources to back up their answers. The instantaneous nature of AI-based feedback can be less stressful for students, and can help flag issues like plagiarism and inappropriate language that are time-consuming to address in a traditional LMS. While AI may not be a substitute for feedback from instructors, it can provide regular and reliable responses to students in ways that are often just not feasible for an instructor to scale alone.
Research suggests that these tools are making an impact. Results from a forthcoming study indicate that HACC students who used an AI-enabled discussion platform were twice as likely to post and five times more likely to cite sources. We’ve also seen improved academic outcomes and increased retention of key concepts in classes where AI is implemented.
Perhaps most impactful are the stories from students and instructors. At first, I was surprised to hear so many of them talk about the community that they were able to create and foster through online discussion. Now, though, I hear almost every week from students and faculty who have found their voices and helped their peers see challenging issues in new ways. As one HACC student put it, the platform we use “enables us to come up with answers we wouldn’t have been able to come up with just reading the textbook…we’re collectively working together to make the discussion as interesting as possible.”
Realizing the potential of online discussion has become even more important in the wake of COVID-19. Technology in the classroom was once a “nice to have” – now, it is an absolute must. Building an infrastructure for effective discussion has enabled HACC faculty to keep leading productive conversations even as more faculty begin teaching remotely. It is also more critical than ever to create open dialogue that elevates the contributions of all students, at a time when the national discourse is focused on the many voices that are being silenced.
In higher education, we often talk about technology as something that dehumanizes the classroom experience. But across classes at HACC, we’ve seen technology light the spark of curiosity among our students and play the role of a 21st-century Socrates.
Doreen Fisher-Bammer, Ed.D., is associate provost of Virtual Learning at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College.

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