AI in education: Possibilities and pitfalls

AI has the potential to address some of the biggest challenges in education, particularly in developing economies.
Joanne Carew
By Joanne Carew, ITWeb Cape-based contributor.
Johannesburg, 29 Feb 2024
Tebogo Moleta, Think Tank.
Tebogo Moleta, Think Tank.

A few years after completing my Honour’s degree, I got the chance to go back to university to study further. I worked as a tutor at the time and remember feeling frustrated at just how much the students cut corners. I’m sure I did the same during my undergrad, but now considered a “mature” student – I was 25 at the time – I couldn’t believe how unwilling they were to learn. Obviously, there were the exceptions, but the majority never read what you asked them to. And they showed up unprepared, thinking that they could fumble their way through sessions without you noticing that they had no clue what was going on.

Given this experience, when OpenAI’s ChatGPT was passing the bar exam and various medical licensing tests, my first thought was that this large language tool would undoubtedly be a hit among apathetic students who wanted to appear that they’d put the work in, but hadn’t. But it’s not all bad.

For Cobus Oosthuizen, dean of postgraduate business programmes at Boston City Campus, the merit of tools like ChatGPT in education is not binary. “They are neither wholly good nor bad, but are powerful aids that come with both benefits and challenges. When integrated thoughtfully into pedagogical strategies, they can greatly enhance educational experiences.”


For Curro’s Angela Schaerer, ensuring the responsible use of platforms like ChatGPT doesn’t happen automatically. She offers the following recommendations for educators and parents who want to help students and young people leverage AI platforms safely and effectively.

• Initiate open discussions:
Knowledge is power. Be open to having conversations about the benefits and potential risks of exploiting an AI platform such as ChatGPT. As part of these chats, unpack the problem with relying solely on AI platforms and discuss acceptable usage behaviour.

• Encourage the right behaviour:
ChatGPT is a useful learning aid, not only a tool for cutting corners and cheating. Emphasise that the platform is intended to enhance comprehension of topics and concepts and is not just for copying and pasting content. For parents, a good way to verify understanding of what your child has written is to have them present the main points of their assignment. If they’ve relied too heavily on ChatGPT, they will likely struggle to communicate the critical aspects of their work because they don’t fully grasp the material.

• Establish clear guidelines:
The online activities of young learners should be supervised to ensure that they are using technology responsibly and appropriately. Promote honesty by ensuring learners understand how to acknowledge ChatGPT and other sources in the footnotes and bibliography of their assignments.

For example, ChatGPT can provide students with instant feedback and augment study material by creating more interactive content. “However, it’s crucial that such tools are used to complement traditional teaching methods, not replace them,” he adds, noting that an over-reliance on AI for tasks like essay-writing could impede the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills if not managed carefully.

Glenn Gillis, the co-founder and CEO of Sea Monster, believes that we need to approach this technology by thinking about the type of “war” we’re facing. What he means by this is that our current approach to education – what he dubs the “last war” – places value on getting kids to study and then recall endless amounts of information. But now learners can Google these facts in a matter of seconds. As such, he says, one has to ask if this is still a valuable way to teach and a worthwhile assessment method. How we teach and what we teach has to change and AI is part of this change, he adds, noting that it won’t happen overnight. “Banning the use of AI would be crippling students because we would be preventing them from accessing the most powerful technology of our lifetime. Generative AI is not a fad. It’s going to fundamentally change everything over the next 20 to 30 years,” Gillis says. If we encourage people to use AI tools, and help them to do so responsibly, what we are doing is empowering them with the skills and understanding they need to add value to society.

According to Professor Johan Steyn, a human-centred AI advocate, AI poses a question that educators should have answered a long time ago. “The ship is going down the river – we either embrace it or we don’t. But unless the education world massively pivots and adapts, I think certain types of education, like university education, will be redundant in the next decade. It’s just too costly, it takes too long and by the time you’ve completed your four- or five-year degree, life has moved on.”

Replacing teachers

The experts agree that AI won’t be replacing educators. But it will aid and augment the work they do. “AI is not going to take your job, but somebody using AI might,” says Gillis. “Great teachers are great storytellers. They inspire pupils to ask the right questions rather than just providing them with fixed answers,” he says. “The hope is that this will free them up to focus on the tasks they’re really good at, like building learner confidence, inspiring a love of learning and giving kids the right basic skills – like critical thinking and mental resilience – which we know underpin their personal success and society’s success.”

As Tebogo Moleta, founder and MD at Think Tank, points out, AI can help educators by automating administrative tasks like marking learner assessments and writing report cards. In addition, AI can help teachers quickly draw up robust lesson plans with content that is suited to the class’ level of understanding, he says. But this is only possible when we provide proper training for educators, he points out.

For Africa, there is incredible power in being able to use GenAI models to create learning material in different languages, says Gillis. Research shows that education in the mother tongue improves learning outcomes. “If you’re looking to translate something into French of German, it’s a lot easier than getting someone to translate something into isiXhosa. With generative AI, it’s possible to quickly and easily translate content into a broader range of languages. This process was fairly labour-intensive just a year or two ago.”

Banning the use of AI would be crippling students because we would be preventing them from accessing the most powerful technology of our lifetime.

Glenn Gillis, Sea Monster

According to a report released recently by Boston Consulting Group, in collaboration with Wits Business School and Microsoft, AI also makes personalised learning possible. By analysing data around student performance and learning patterns, AI can generate lesson plans for each individual based on their unique strengths and weaknesses. The report also explains that AI can even function as a “conversational tutor” in the absence of a teacher. These smart tutors are capable of making sense of students’ questions and navigating through knowledge repositories to provide relevant answers with detailed and contextually accurate explanations. This kind of thing will be a game changer in environments where good teachers are hard to find. And for schools and universities that are short on administrative staff, AI can be used to handle back office tasks like streamlining registration processes.

Human touch

The key, says Oosthuizen, from Boston City Campus, is to strike a balance between leveraging technology to improve our shortcomings while still preserving the human touch in education. Locally, the challenges around bringing these technologies into our schools and universities range from unequal access, potential biases and possible overreliance, to making sure that it is used ethically, with privacy in mind. Similarly, when we bring any new technology into educational environments, there must be continuous monitoring and evaluation, says Moleta, so that any issues can be addressed immediately and any adjustments can be made to ensure that we minimise any potentially negative effects of using this technology.


Forrester Research reveals that more educated, mid-salary workers will feel the biggest impact from GenAI. While tech innovation has threatened frontline jobs and manual labour since the 19th century, the GenAI trend is set to have a higher influence, the more education a worker has. According to Forrester, occupations with lower educational requirements – like transportation and warehousing, construction, agriculture and manufacturing – will see AI innovations having less job influence.

“While we certainly need to be more aware of the fact that tools such as ChatGPT, Bing Chat or Google Bard can write essays with an uncanny ability to sound just like us, completely prohibiting their use in schools is simply not a viable solution to stopping plagiarism and cheating,” says Angela Schaerer, digital transformation manager at Curro Holdings. “AI technology has already been integrated into various platforms that learners use daily, like Google Search, Microsoft’s translation, transcripts, chatbots and autocorrect, for example. Then there are social media’s translation tools, which can all be used as a method for cheating. Just as preventing learners from using Google for research was an impractical idea a few years ago, avoiding or blocking ChatGPT won’t solve the issue of cheating today,” she says.

Some of the applications that are already out there are not what one might expect. The University of Pretoria created a chatbot designed to help students struggling with their mental health, says Steyn. It’s totally anonymous and focuses on things like financial health, sexual health and general mental and physical health. This is an example of how AI can serve learning communities in a different way.

For Gillis, from Sea Monster, it’s not a question of it being good or bad. “As technology progresses more and more, we need to remind ourselves that learning, rather than education, is about putting the human at the centre of the experience. For too long, South Africa has continued to pour more and more money into students to achieve worse results than almost any other country on the planet.

“But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can deliver quality education, but it requires a degree of urgency. Embracing innovations like GenAI and various other edtech solutions is a no-brainer because the science is clear on what can be done when we do.”

Source: Forrester’s 2023 Generative AI jobs impact forecast, US
Source: Forrester’s 2023 Generative AI jobs impact forecast, US


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