UW researcher examines AI’s impact on teen learning

Sep 28, 2023, 1:46 PM | Updated: 1:57 pm

Artificial Intelligence AI...

A University in a class on Artificial Intelligence. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

It’s pretty clear that artificial intelligence (AI) will impact teens’ education. The question is whether it will be for the better or worse.

One fear is that AI will give students the opportunity to outsource creative work and critical thinking.

But Katie Davis, a University of Washington associate professor in the Informational School, doesn’t believe that has to be the case.

“We’ve found that teens often go onto social media for one purpose, only to find themselves quickly sucked down a rabbit hole of unintended scrolling,” Davis explained in an interview with the university’s UW News. “After 20 or 30 minutes, they’re thinking: What have I just done with my time? It’s a very common experience in adults as well. We’re exploring whether we can use generative AI to reorient teens’ initial entry into social media experiences toward meaningfulness, toward their values or goals and away from habitual use.”

Davis’ research focuses on the impact of new and emerging technologies on teen learning.

“I’m fascinated by emerging research on what kids are doing with generative AI, such as ChatGPT, when they have free time and want to explore,” Davis said. “How are they thinking and making sense of generative AI and its potential — not just for learning, but for going about their daily lives?”

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What Prof. Davis comes back to

Davis said she always comes back to this broad question: How are the technologies around young people shaping their sense of self and how they move through the world?

In her book that was released earlier this year, “Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up,” Davis distills her research in the area into two key qualities of technologies that support development: “self-directed”(meaning the kids are in control) and “community supported” (meaning adults and peers are around to engage with the kids’ tech use).

“My hope is that kids will learn to give ChatGPT and other AI tools creative prompts and use chatbots as a source of inspiration rather than an answer bank,” Davis said. “But teaching kids to use AI creatively and critically isn’t easy.”

Davis said she’s learned that there’s a pattern in education technology. Innovative uses are traditionally found in more affluent, well-resourced schools. When the same technologies are introduced into less affluent schools, they are often used more for drill-type activities or even to control kids and make sure that they’re on task.

Davis said she is hoping to understand how young people use AI chatbots outside of school and in their daily lives.

“Kids are sophisticated users of technology. And they’re not afraid to break things,” Davis explained. “I think that’s one reason they tend to learn how to use new technologies so quickly because they don’t care if they make mistakes. That mindset provides a real opportunity that schools can take advantage of, to teach critical understandings of AI and other emerging technologies. Otherwise, I worry that the technology will start to use us.

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More on Davis’ research

The whole idea behind Davis’ research is to look into how to use AI to emphasize “self-directed” experiences and not just spitting out answers.

“One example is Khan Academy, which has come out with an AI chatbot, Khanmigo,” she said. “The company is framing Khanmigo as a tutor that’s not just going to give you answers, but actually ask you open-ended questions to help you come to your own answer. That’s a great vision. Now, my understanding is that it’s not quite there yet. It’s not perfect, but I think the goal is a good one.”

Davis admits AI has already invaded college learning.

I can’t just ask students to write a paper on some topic because, odds are, they’re going to use ChatGPT to write it,” she said. “So I have to really think about what it is that I want them to know and be able to do. It’s not easy, but I love the conversations we’re having as educators.”

Davis said she realizes that this is all a bit “unsettling.”

“But I think it’s a good unsettling. It’s one that really forces us as educators to focus on the goals of teaching.”

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UW researcher examines AI’s impact on teen learning