Schooled by AI: What parents should know about the programs reshaping early education

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From an iPad on their kitchen table, a digital voice reads out a story to Dipti Bhide and her son, Rohan.

It’s about an astronaut that went to Mars, met an alien and found some space rocks before coming back to Earth. The pair, who live in Coquitlam, B.C., are the first people to ever hear the story, which was created using suggestions from Rohan, which were then keyed into the artificial intelligence (AI) program his mother created. 

Rohan, who is eight years old, is completely absorbed in the story.

“It’s a story he created so he’s very motivated,” said his mother.

Bhide isn’t the first developer to imagine the potential of advanced computer automation for kids learning. Her program is one of many new AI offerings, like Funexpected Math or Ello, available for purchase online that promise to engage young children in the seeming limitlessness of the technology.

But while the programs claim to improve a child’s grasp of the fundamentals, education researchers say the enormous potential comes with evolving concerns around privacy, transparency and biases that could cause potential harm, particularly given the young age of prospective users.

Some of these concerns were outlined in a recent report from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the standards-developer CSA Group, which found policymakers have failed to recognize children’s “privacy rights, distinct needs, as well as the unique circumstances of children,” with most policy responses remaining “mostly adult-centric.” 

Despite the unknowns, apps for people of all ages continue to launch, as developers ride the wave of interest in AI, sprouting technology that aims to do everything from improving medical diagnoses to helping seniors make art.

Rohan, 8, plays a LittleLit game on a tablet that uses AI to personalize the learning experience in Coquitlam, B.C.
Eight-year-old Rohan plays a LittleLit game on a tablet in Coquitlam, B.C. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Bhide tells CBC she wants to make sure her children are ready for the inevitable rise of artificial intelligence in their future and her LittleLit program is a “co-pilot” in their education. 

“AI exists now. What skills do you need to teach your child to keep up with that, and hey, AI can help with that as well,” she said.

Neither inherently good nor bad for us 

Elizabeth Adams, a U.S.-based clinical psychologist and co-founder of AI-powered program Ello, tells CBC she is concerned about developers using the technology without the right educational approach. 

Ello uses child speech recognition technology and AI to build an online reading coach for kids using an AI avatar in the form of a friendly blue elephant called Ello, which listens along and corrects children as they read aloud.

Ron Darvin, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia with expertise in digital learning and literacy, says artificial technology is "neither inherently good or inherently bad for us".
Ron Darvin, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia with expertise in digital learning and literacy, says artificial technology is ‘neither inherently good nor inherently bad for us.’ (Georgie Smyth /CBC)

“The challenge is that there’s a rush and there might be products on the market that aren’t safe or that aren’t the best experiences for kids,” said Adams.

“I worry if some of that goes awry that parents are going to have their guardrails up even more.”

Emphasizing built-in features, like allowing users to opt out of sharing different kinds of data, is how developers like Bhide and Adams are hoping to put parents at ease and have them consider artificial technology tools for their kids.

It’s not to say, however, that AI is inherently bad or good for adults or children, said Ron Darvin, an assistant professor at UBC with expertise in digital learning and literacy.  

“It really is us being able to understand, what are the affordances and constraints of these tools and to shape it in a way that empowers us as human beings.”

He told CBC the real issue is digital literacy — not simply about knowing how to use artificial intelligence technology but to understand how it works and the principles behind it. 

No replacement for in-person learning

Rohan, 8, plays a LittleLit game on a tablet that uses AI to personalize the learning experience in Coquitlam, B.C.
Rohan plays a LittleLit game on a tablet. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

If kids are getting answers to certain prompts that are delivered orally then programs are possibly recording voices, said Darvin. There’s potential for AI technology to also read facial expressions. Sometimes programs also collect extra data while the program is in use, an essential part of machine learning, which can be stored locally or shared with third parties.

The apps cannot replace the value of in-person learning, said Darvin, because they are essentially limited to the instructions that have been fed into the software, often called algorithms.

In the case of LittleLit, it means the software can be programmed to offer age-specific content. But it can also result in the omission of alternative data, which may lead to AI programs feeding repetitive, formulaic content or perhaps being unable to discern a person’s unique accent or facial expressions, he said.

Even AI’s remarkable ability to instantly make math or reading problems out of unicorns or chocolate bars can’t compete with the value of face-to-face learning, according to LittleLit co-founder Dipti Bhide. The developer, who one day hopes to see the program used in schools, is adamant there’s ultimately no replacement for a teacher or a parent despite the potential of AI.

It’s a view shared by Christine Korol, a psychologist at BC Children’s Hospital, who said there are decades of research showing that child-parent book interactions are some of the best ways to get kids to improve their interest and motivation to read.

“You spend quality time with each other, you laugh at stories,” she said. “There’s lots of things that parents bring to the table when they read with their children.”

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