Khan’s Brave New Words

Cover of book Brave New Words

I have been a Khan fan ever since he founded Khan Academy in 2006 – the same year I moved to VCU as an online specialist in their Center for Teaching Excellence.  I found Salman Khan’s latest book thoughtful and on point.  Through nine parts and multiple short chapters, he lays out a vision of AI as the intelligent assistant and tutor that we all desire.

Part I is called Rise of the AI Tutor.  Khan noted that the AI genie is out of the bottle, and that AI tutors have the potential to revolutionize education by providing personalized, one-on-one tutoring at scale. They can help address learning gaps and increase mastery learning by walking students through problem-solving processes rather than simply providing answers.  He reinforced something I have stated over the years – that tech is neither good nor bad, rather it is how it is used that matters.

In Part II – Giving Voice to Social Sciences – Khan suggests that AI can enhance creativity and bring subjects like history and literature to life by allowing students to interact with historical figures and engage in deeper discussions. AI can raise expectations for the quality of student work and encourage them to write with AI rather than letting AI write for them.

In Part II, Khan tackles the question of whether AI kills creativity.  I asked my AI agent Claude for thoughts on this and Claude responded:

Here are a few alternative perspectives:

  • AI as a creativity killer: Some argue that relying too heavily on AI for creative tasks might lead to a homogenization of ideas and a decrease in originality. If everyone uses the same AI tools to generate ideas or content, the results may become predictable and lack the unique perspective that human creators bring to the table.
  • AI as a crutch: There is a concern that individuals might become overly dependent on AI for creative problem-solving, leading to a decrease in their own creative thinking skills. This could result in a lack of resilience and adaptability when faced with challenges that require innovative solutions.
  • AI as a job displacer: As AI becomes more advanced in generating creative content, such as art, music, or writing, some worry that it could replace human creators in certain fields. This could lead to job losses and a devaluation of human creativity.
  • AI as a collaborator: Others argue that AI should be viewed as a collaborator rather than a replacement for human creativity. By working alongside AI tools, human creators can explore new possibilities, generate fresh ideas, and push the boundaries of their creative fields. In this view, AI is seen as an enhancer rather than a threat to human creativity.
  • AI as a tool for augmentation: Some experts believe that AI can augment human creativity by taking care of repetitive or time-consuming tasks, allowing humans to focus on higher-level creative thinking. For example, an AI tool might help a designer quickly generate variations of a logo, freeing up time for the designer to focus on the overall brand strategy and aesthetics.

Ultimately, the impact of AI on creativity likely depends on how it is developed, implemented, and used by individuals and organizations. By carefully considering the potential benefits and drawbacks, we can work towards a future where AI and human creativity coexist and complement each other.

This is not bad, and dovetails with Khan’s view that human creativity gains value when exposed to the creativity of others, including AI.

Part III is entitled “Empowering the Next Innovators.”  Khan noted that AI could be used to engage students, challenge them to summarize difficult subjects in their own language, and provide immediate feedback. It can help proactive students learn outside of normal lessons and assist teachers in probing understanding and suggesting ways to fill knowledge gaps.  This ties in with Part IV – Better Together.  AI can potentially increase human-human interaction and help build people skills when used thoughtfully. It can simulate empathy and provide resources for parents to focus on developing well-rounded individuals. I saw this myself recently when I asked Claude to review my draft blog post from Sunday and the first thing Claude “said” via his text comment (and I am just going to assign Claude “he/his pronouns…) is that he is glad the cancer treatments for myself and my daughters appear to be working.

Crazy, right!

For Khan, AI can free up time for parents to focus on life skills rather than just academic tutoring.

Part Five – Keeping Kids Safe – suggested that AI has the potential to filter the web in ways that benefit individuals, keeping parents and teachers advised on student gaps while respecting privacy. However, Khan notes the importance of being aware of data monetization and vigilant about how data is used.  This brought me back to earlier books I reviewed including LikeWar and Antisocial Media.

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking (2018) explored how social media has transformed the nature of conflict in the modern world. The authors argued that social media platforms have become a new battleground where wars are fought not just with weapons, but also with information, propaganda, and narratives.

Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy is a book by Siva Vaidhyanathan, also published in 2018. The book offered a critical examination of Facebook’s impact on society, politics, and personal relationships. Vaidhyanathan argued that Facebook’s unchecked power and misaligned incentives posed a serious threat to democracy, social cohesion, and individual well-being. He called for greater regulation of the platform, as well as a societal shift towards more meaningful forms of communication and community-building.  Not sure that we have seen that come to play!

My favorite section was Part VI – Teaching in the Age of AI.  Khan suggested that AI can supercharge teachers by acting as a teaching assistant, allowing for differentiation and active learning at scale. It can help with crafting lessons, facilitating breakouts, grading, and communicating with parents. AI could also enhance alternative education models like homeschooling and pod schooling.

He dove into the issue of the potential use of AI to cheat…particularly at the college level.  The issue of cheating in college is more pronounced than in K-12 education. The generation of text by AI is putting a spotlight on a problem that has existed for years. It brought to mind an example from 30 years ago at the University of Nebraska, when I was teaching at the Naval ROTC.  Midshipmen routinely kept files (as did students in fraternities and sororities) containing specific class tests, which were passed on to the students in future years.

However, Khan thought that AI could help mitigate cheating by allowing educators to focus more on the learning process rather than just the final product. By emphasizing the importance of understanding the material and the steps taken to arrive at a conclusion, rather than solely evaluating the end result, educators can encourage students to engage with the content more deeply.

Additionally, AI could be used to detect and flag instances of plagiarism or cheating, helping to maintain academic integrity. By leveraging AI’s ability to analyze patterns and similarities in text, institutions can more effectively identify and address cases of academic dishonesty.  Overall, while AI may initially seem to facilitate cheating, it could also be used as a tool to promote genuine learning and discourage cheating when implemented thoughtfully in the college setting.

In Part VII – The Global Classroom – and Part VIII – AI, Assessments and Admissions – Khan noted that AI has the potential to address educational gaps globally, but scaling it would require significant investment. As devices and bandwidth become cheaper, AI could help provide targeted help and access to the internet for a larger portion of the global population.  AI could also change how assessments and admissions are conducted, potentially leading to more continuous, transparent, and equitable processes. It may even challenge the relevance of traditional application materials like essays.

The final section was Part IX – Work and What Comes Next.  Khan strongly believes that AI is creating new kinds of work and changing the nature of existing jobs. To thrive in an AI-driven future, individuals must adapt and learn to use AI for their own productivity and entrepreneurship. Khan calls for a flipped pyramid.  Rather than the traditional pyramid of lots of low-level low-skilled workers on the bottom, some white-collar jobs in the middle, and highly skilled knowledge work at the top, Khan sees an inverted pyramid in which most people work at the top and use AI to enhance their skills and knowledge.

AI searching for jobs

This has been a long, detailed post…but I thought Khan’s work deserved that.

As always, I would be interested in your thoughts.

{Graphics: Viking Press, LinkedIn, TechWireAsia}

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