ChatGPT & Generative AI

Using AI Tutors to Flip Your Classroom

Teachers can set up AI tutors to create personalized learning experiences for students at home, freeing up time for collaboration and active learning in class.

June 4, 2024
Nick Shepherd / Ikon Images

We know something about what the classrooms of the future will look like. AI cheating will remain undetectable and widespread. AI tutoring will likely become excellent, but not a replacement for school. Classrooms provide so much more: opportunities to practice learned skills, collaborate on problem-solving, socialize, and receive support from instructors. School will continue to add value, even with excellent AI tutors. But those tutors will change education. They already have. Just a few months after the release of ChatGPT, I noticed that students were raising their hands less to ask basic questions. When I asked why, one student told me, “Why raise your hand in class when you can ask ChatGPT a question?”

The biggest change will be in how teaching actually happens. Today, that is often by an instructor lecturing a class. A good lecture can be a powerful thing, but it takes work—to be effective it needs to be well organized, include opportunities for students to interact with the teacher, and continuously relate ideas back to one another. In the near term, AI can help instructors prepare lectures that are grounded in content and take into account how students learn. We have already been finding that AI is very good at assisting instructors to prepare more engaging, organized lectures and make the traditional passive lecture far more active.

Book cover Co-Intelligence by Ethan Mollick
Courtesy of Portfolio

In the longer term, however, the lecture is in danger. Too many involve passive learning, where students simply listen and take notes without engaging in active problem-solving or critical thinking. Moreover, the one-size-fits-all approach of lectures doesn’t account for individual differences and abilities, leading to some students falling behind while others become disengaged due to a lack of challenge.

A contrasting philosophy, active learning, reduces the importance of the lecture, asking students to participate in the learning process through activities like problem-solving, group work, and hands-on exercises. In this approach, students collaborate with one another and the instructor to apply what they’ve learned. Multiple studies support the growing consensus that active learning is one of the most effective approaches to education, but it can take effort to develop active learning strategies, and students still need proper initial instruction. So how can active learning and passive learning coexist?

One solution to incorporating more active learning is by “flipping” classrooms. Students would learn new concepts at home, typically through videos or other digital resources, and then apply what they’ve learned in the classroom through collaborative activities, discussions, or problem-solving exercises. The main idea behind flipped classrooms is to maximize classroom time for active learning and critical thinking, while using at-home learning for content delivery. The value of flipped classrooms seems to be mixed, ultimately depending on whether they encourage active learning or not.

So the problem with implementing active learning lies in the lack of quality resources, from teacher time to the difficulty of finding good “flipped” learning materials, thus maintaining a status quo where active learning remains rare. This is where AI comes in as a partner, not a replacement, since human teachers can fact-check and guide the AI in ways that will help their class. AI systems can help teachers generate customized active learning experiences to make classes more interesting, from games and activities to assessments and simulations. For example, history professor Benjamin Breen used ChatGPT to create a Black Death simulator, in which students got a more immersive sense of what it might be like to live during the time of the plague than they would from a standard textbook. His students generally loved the assignment but also did things that surprised him, taking advantage of the flexibility of the AI to lead peasant revolts or develop the first vaccines against the plague. It is hard to imagine consistently getting these sorts of educational experiences before AI.

But AI allows for more fundamental changes to how we learn, beyond providing classroom activities. Imagine introducing high-quality AI tutors into the flipped classroom model. These AI-powered systems have the potential to significantly enhance the learning experience for students and make flipped classrooms even more effective. They provide personalized learning, where AI tutors can tailor instruction to each student’s unique needs while continually adjusting content based on performance. This means that students can engage with the content at home more effectively, ensuring they come to class better prepared and ready to dive into hands-on activities or discussions.

With AI tutors taking care of some of the content delivery outside of class, teachers can devote more time to fostering meaningful interactions with their students during class. They can also use insights from the AI tutors to identify areas where students might need extra support or guidance, enabling teachers to provide more personalized and effective instruction.

And with AI assistance, they can design better active learning opportunities in class to make sure that learning sticks.

This isn’t a far-future pipe dream. Tools from Khan Academy (and some of our own experiments) suggest that existing AI, when properly prepared, is already an excellent tutor. Khan Academy’s Khanmigo goes beyond the passive videos and quizzes that made Khan Academy famous by including AI tutoring. Students can ask the tutor to explain concepts, of course, but it is also capable of analyzing patterns of performance to guess at why a student is struggling with a topic, providing much deeper help. It can even answer that most challenging of questions, “Why should I bother learning this?” by explaining how a topic like cellular respiration relates to a student who wants to be a football player (the AI’s argument: it will help them understand nutrition and therefore athletic performance).

Students are already using AI as a learning tool. Teachers are already using AI to prep for class. The change is already here, and we will all encounter it sooner or later. It may force us to change models, but it will be in a way that ultimately enhances learning and reduces busywork. And, most exciting, this change is likely to be worldwide. Education is the key to increasing incomes and even intelligence. But two-thirds of the world’s youth, mostly in less developed countries, are missing basic skills because the school systems have failed them.

The benefits of educating the world are immense; one recent study suggests that closing the gap would be worth five times this year’s global GDP! The solution has always seemed to be to use education technology (EdTech to its friends). But every EdTech solution has fallen short of the dream of providing high-end education, as we’ve discovered the limitations of various programs that ranged from providing kids with free laptops to creating massive video courses. Other ambitious EdTech projects have also run into similar issues deploying high-quality products at scale. Progress is being made, but it is not fast enough.

But AI has changed everything: teachers of billions of people around the world have access to a tool that can potentially act as the ultimate education technology. Once the exclusive privilege of million-dollar budgets and expert teams, education technology now rests in the hands of educators. The ability to unleash talent, and to make schooling better for everyone from students to teachers to parents, is incredibly exciting. We stand on the cusp of an era when AI changes how we educate— empowering teachers and students and reshaping the learning experience—and, hopefully, achieve that two sigma improvement for all. The only question is whether we steer this shift in a way that lives up to the ideals of expanding opportunity for everyone and nurturing human potential.

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  • Blended Learning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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