The Impact of AI on the Inherently Human Experience of Learning

Susan Winslow · September 18, 2023

Susan Winslow blog post

At Macmillan Learning’s Tech Ed Conference this year, I connected with dozens of instructors teaching the next generation of learners about the topic on everyone’s mind -- Artificial Intelligence. AI will undoubtedly continue to change the learning experience. But I would also argue that the most meaningful parts of learning, at the core, are deeply human, and that's something we must never forget. So as teachers around the world have returned to class, I wanted to share some thoughts on our future and on what I believe will be AI’s impact on education.

But first, let’s take a step back in time to November 30, 2022 -- the day that Chat GPT was unleashed as a free platform for the world to use and explore. I remember vividly the enormous influx of messages from my colleagues across the company and in classrooms. Everyone had questions about what it meant to education, what it meant for Macmillan Learning, and what its impact will be on society in general.

Not too long thereafter, we were inundated by headlines like The End of High-School English from The Atlantic and Teachers are on alert for inevitable cheating after release of ChatGPT from The Washington Post. We began getting messages from instructors letting us know that their students were cheating using AI to write essays, to answer homework, and even during quizzes -- and they needed help.

It was at that moment of information crush that I remember looking up at the ceiling and understanding that everything had completely changed. I told our instructors at Tech Ed that in that moment, it felt a bit like I was rapidly going through the stages of grief: Denial. Sadness. Bargaining. Depression. And finally, acceptance. But that journey was critical to understanding the problem … and envisioning the solutions.

AI as an Educational Tool

To best solve a problem you first need to understand it. So the first thing I did was what so many of us who work in education love doing -- learning more about the problem. I spent the next two months with various generative AI tools, with tech leaders, at AI conferences, with students and with teachers, and ultimately fortified myself on what Macmillan Learning’s role could and should be. There were enough people training the AI how to learn. Our job is to help humans learn.

Coming to that conclusion, for me, changed everything. I became optimistic. I remembered that learning should require effort. To form those new synapses, you need to be puzzled, challenged, engaged. The education community works tirelessly to both guide students along their learning path, and ensure the reward once it is taken.

I considered that this may be another opportunity to revisit some of our goals when it comes to reaching learners. To do things in a better way. To address issues of equity, equality, neurodiversity, or access in a different way. To address issues of bias in the system. To create stronger assessment tools, that can be tailored to a broader set of outcomes. Maybe we can unlock new learning experiences, reach more students, and have a real learning renaissance. Maybe the multiple choice problem wasn't the best assessment tool to begin with. Maybe there are other experiences we can develop that will assist all instructors in creating that magic moment that becomes the human connection to learning with their students.

Learning is Still Human

In each of our lives, there likely has been someone or something that inspires: an influential moment in a person’s life that helped them to become the person who they were; a book they read; a speech, a lesson they learned in class; an instructor who took the time to get to know them and make them feel like they could do it. As amazing and useful as generative AI technology is, it still falls short of that person who inspired you to be better, that maybe changed your life. And that is ok. AI can do what it does well, and there is still a place for the human connection to do what it does best. As a learning company, enabling more of those moments needs to be at the forefront of the work we do.

This means that we need to talk directly with, and listen to, students about how they use AI, and under what circumstances it advances their learning. As I have talked to students, I have found that they are not shy about sharing how they have used AI, talking as much about how they have used AI apps to cheat as they have used them to assist in their learning. We need to do more work here to know what exactly they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

Can we unlock learning for students in a way that is exciting and expands their curiosity? In my conversations with them, in many cases, they have told me they’re not actually sure if what they’re doing is, in fact, cheating. And when I ask them what motivated them to use AI in the first place, the answer is often “because I want to see if it will work.” There’s curiosity in there. There is learning happening there. With the rapid advance of AI tools and functionality, we’re getting into the potential of a new experiential learning experience. Students were one of the fastest adopting demographics for AI and there’s much to learn about how they use it.

Can we use metacognition in a way that helps provoke learning? If you ask ChatGPT what it learned this year, it responds “I don't have the ability to learn or experience things in the way humans do, as I am a pre-trained model with a knowledge cutoff in September 2021…” We can work with that. We can use metacognitive prompts to ask students if they’re aware of their learning, and what they learned. We can use the science of learning to help our human students be better at learning, to gain the kinds of critical thinking and awareness skills that will be crucial to helping them get better jobs in an AI-assisted future.

At Macmillan Learning, we see significant opportunity in this new world, but we also know there is a lot to continue to learn, understand, and be careful of. We’re partners in this journey. We’ve already rolled up our sleeves and are digging in creating new, exciting products and processes to support students and instructors. We are working to set new standards in inclusive practices within AI tools. And we are committed to advancing the learning science that will shape our next education renaissance.

In the coming months, you will begin to hear from our company leaders about our strategy, our projects, and our ideas. We’re working on some cool things. We’re eager to learn from you along the way. I hope you will stay close to us through our collective journey so we can inform each other’s progress. Our job is to help humans learn, to inspire what’s possible for every learner, to envision a world where every learner succeeds. And AI is changing the game in how we all support that journey.