Student AI Use leads to dependence. So what?

This research article has been making the rounds, so I figured I would chime in with my two cents. I use AI tools myself and I teach my students how to use them productively as level to enhance their learning.

As the authors state in the abstract from the research paper, "Results of the experiment suggest that students tended to rely on rather than learn from AI assistance. If AI assistance was removed, self-regulated strategies could help fill the gap but were not as effective as AI assistance." In other words, students who were given access to AI tools (like personalized tutors) did learn more, but if the AI was taken away, they ended not gaining any ground over kids without AI.

I struggle with this conclusion because I don't think that most teachers see AI as helping to close learning gaps. I certainly don't use it that way. I think that it can make the work of students more efficient, which often boosts engagement and reduces academic fatigue, but that's not really the point either. The real idea here is that AI truly is the new calculator.

No math teacher thinks that kids with calculators learn faster. No one suggests that giving calculators to struggling math students will help them build skills that will lead to them not needing the calculator any more. The calculator is a tech tool that acts like a step ladder. It lifts students up to a place where they can reach more. But they still have to reach up and grab those higher things.

The true power of AI in education is that after students learn basic writing or research skills, they can use it to do the low-level draft work, freeing them to learn the higher order skills of proofreading and editing. Tomorrow's adults will be able to write even more and read even more because of the AI assistants.

Perhaps some students who would not have had the basic writing skills to do normal tasks in the past will now be able to do those tasks with the help of AI assistants. In the mid-1970s, one college professor said of calculators, "I have yet to be convinced that handing them a machine and teaching them how to push the button is the right approach. What do they do when the battery runs out?” 

Now, we laugh at the idea that anyone would be without a calculator at any point in today's world. In a few years, we will feel the same way about AI tools. They will become an indispensable ever-present tool that helps with the basics so that we can do the more complex things.