Teacher shortages and AI advancements: a paradox

BAR NONE - Ian Manticajon - The Freeman

The news published yesterday by The Philippine STAR states that the United Nations has issued a global alert over a shortage of teachers, especially at the secondary level. The situation is actually a bit confusing.

On the one hand, as UNESCO points out, seven out of 10 teachers at the secondary level will need to be replaced by 2030, amid an increasing student population and retiring teachers. We are also familiar with the fact that most teachers, especially in developing countries, are overburdened by schoolwork and large class sizes.

On the other hand, with the advancement of information technology and artificial intelligence (AI), it prompts us to question whether we will need the same kind of teachers in the future. As AI continues to improve, the entire school system, including universities offering higher education, could become obsolete in the next few years, if not sooner. This could happen if schools are not agile and quick enough to adapt to the changes that are happening now. It’s as if we’re saying we need more teachers now, but soon, we might not really need as many because of how technology is upending the current traditional educational setup.

These developments are “unfamiliar and disorienting,” as one UNESCO paper (2023) about generative AI and the future of education puts it, acknowledging at the same time digital technology’s “potential to enrich our lives, improve our relationships, and open new horizons for education.”

The paper’s author, Stefania Giannini, assistant director-general for Education at UNESCO, offers some insights to teachers of writing, in particular: “As a university professor, I have long considered the teaching of writing to be one of the most effective ways to cultivate and demonstrate analytical and critical thinking skills. But generative AI invites me to question such assumptions, even as I continue to hold them.”

As a teacher in higher education myself for over 20 years, I also now question the relevance of my job vis-à-vis current developments in generative AI technology. It’s something I now often discuss with my students as I grapple with the fact that at their fingertips, on the gadgets they are holding, are the answers to the questions that used to take a couple of class sessions to discuss and understand.

I also now hear complaints from some students who are good writers but are unfairly accused of using AI for their writing. This is because their teacher, who uses AI detection tools (e.g., Turnitin), submitted their work to such AI-based programs, which then mistakenly flagged it as produced by AI or plagiarized.

How did we reach a point where we automatically suspect our new generation of students of cheating unless technology proves them innocent? When did we let technology strip away our humanity, common sense, and the value we place on engaging with each other and embracing the very imperfections and nuances that make us human?

Giannini asks the following questions: As AI keeps getting better every minute, what should we teach our students so they are ready for the future where AI will increasingly play a role? How do we adapt and stay relevant in our role to guide the youth in dealing with a world where machine ‘intelligence’ and people work more closely together? We might soon create AI that's smarter than us in many ways, like solving big problems including climate change. What should learning be like then?

These are questions we must address immediately to avoid being lost in confusion or lacking direction.

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