Jay Blogs – The Perils and Promise of Artificial Intelligence in Christian Education

We often fear what we don’t understand, and, in many cases, that’s probably a wise approach. I watched a YouTube clip the other day where a guy of dubious intelligence believed Pandas to be cute and cuddly, even those that are fully grown. Acting on this assumption, he jumped over the wall of the Panda den at his local zoo and engaged with the cuddly Panda. About 30 seconds and a mauled leg later, the dude learned the hard way that a little fear of what we don’t understand can be a healthy thing.

But fear shouldn’t paralyze us. It should lead us to greater understanding, and often, it can allow us to unlock some pretty amazing possibilities. This is probably nowhere truer than in the realm of artificial intelligence. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is emerging as a powerful tool that, if used wisely and well, can enhance our students’ learning experience. I want to look at some of the perils and promises of artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence is a form of digital learning, whereby computers use progressive learning algorithms to let data help them do the learning. AI looks for structure, patterns, and regularities in the data it has at its disposal so that it can teach itself and adapt when given new input. You’re already using AI now, in Alexa and Google and Siri and Apple, every time you dictate a text message or type an email and predictive text assists you in composing a message. I even used ChatGPT, an AI-based application, to create the first draft of this blog.

In K-12 education, there are lots of ways that AI can be used to assist the student learning process. Here are a few that we’re currently exploring and investigating for appropriate use at Grace:

     1. Personalized Learning Paths

One of the big advantages of AI in K-12 education is creating differentiated learning paths for students within the same classroom. Adaptive learning platforms powered by AI can analyze students’ strengths and weaknesses, and then tailor lessons to meet their unique needs. Differentiated learning allows students to more readily progress at their own pace, receiving the support and challenges they need to maximize learning.

     2. Biblically-Based Educational Resources

AI can curate and generate biblically-based educational materials. Intelligent content recommendation systems can suggest readings, videos, and interactive exercises that reinforce certain biblical principles (ex: “show me good content relating to a healthy prayer life”). These systems not only provide a richer learning experience for students, but also free up teachers to focus on guiding students in understanding the moral and spiritual implications of the content.

     3. Automated Administrative Tasks

Teachers often find themselves losing valuable time and bandwidth on administrative tasks, like grading, attendance tracking, and scheduling. AI can streamline these processes, enabling teachers to devote more time to important activity like building relationships with students, guiding them in the faith, and delivering high-quality education.

     4. Facilitating Biblical Integration

Integrating God’s Word into the learning process is the foundation of Christian education. AI can assist teachers in infusing biblical principles into various subjects. For example, AI-driven applications can identify opportunities to discuss moral or ethical considerations in historical events, scientific discoveries, or literary works. By facilitating faith integration, AI becomes a tool for reinforcing a biblical worldview throughout the curriculum.

     5. Supporting Diverse Learning Styles

Every student is unique, and their learning styles vary. AI can adapt to these differences by providing diverse learning materials and methods. For instance, visual learners may benefit from AI-generated graphics and videos, while auditory learners could access podcasts or interactive lectures. This approach provides a degree of flexibility to the diverse needs of students, helping to recognize and celebrate individual differences.

     6. Early Intervention and Learning Differences

AI-powered analytics can identify learning challenges and learning differences early on, creating more space for timely intervention. This can allow us to provide more and better care for students who need extra helps. AI can provide insights into student progress, behavior patterns, and emotional well-being, enabling educators and parents to collaborate in creating a supportive environment for every child.

     7. Parental Engagement and Communication

Our school is characterized by strong partnerships among teachers, parents and administrators. AI can strengthen communication by providing real-time updates on students’ academic progress, spiritual formation observations, as well as upcoming school events. Automated messaging systems can keep parents informed about their child’s achievements and areas for improvement, making our collaborative partnership with parents even stronger.

     8. Biblical Decision-Making Training

Part of the spiritual formation process is to train kids to make decisions through the lens of God’s word. AI can be employed to simulate scenarios that challenge students to make decisions guided by spiritual discernment before entering into a real-world context. These simulations can help students develop critical thinking skills and godly wisdom, preparing them to navigate complex ethical dilemmas far beyond their time at Grace.

AI-powered learning in Christian education is not without its risks, and must be approached carefully and wisely. AI involves accumulating and analyzing large amounts of student data, and can implicate privacy concerns if such data is not adequately protected. If we rely too heavily on AI-produced tests and assessments, we run the risk of focusing too much on standardized testing as the measure of students’ abilities, missing out on other measures that can give us a fuller picture of student learning. Students can also become overly dependent on AI tools. The writing and creation process involves idea selection, discernment, organization, and a host of other critical thinking skills, the development of which too much reliance on AI tools might undermine.

Heavy reliance on AI-enhanced learning methods can also subvert healthy interaction and collaboration among students, and between students and teachers. And, without proper training, these tools can be ineffective and even harmful to teaching and learning. After all, it’s one thing for me to use AI to write the first draft of this blog. But then I have to edit, discerning what needs to stay and go; I have to rewrite the draft in my voice; I have to prayerfully consider how the Lord wants to use this piece to speak, and rewrite to reflect what I believe he is saying; and, I need to ensure you know this is an AI-assisted work, not entirely of my own hand. What if you had asked me to write this particular blog on my own, without any help, using my own abilities? I would fail that assignment, whether you caught me or not. I wouldn’t have learned from the assignment, to my ultimate harm, even if you gave me an “A” in the process.

It is critical in our Christian school to teach students to be good digital citizens, using valuable technologies like AI in redemptive and effective ways. It is also critical to help them discern the ways in which AI is destructive and harmful, and to bring righteous character to bear in order to use these technologies to further God’s Kingdom, all for his glory. As AI continues to rise in prominence and sophistication, what constitutes humanity, who we are as image bearers of God, and what are those things only humans can be and do (including have a spirit and soul, exercise Spirit-filled wisdom, and receive God’s revelation as truth) are increasingly-relevant questions.

These questions can only be answered from God’s word, and students need the lens of Christian education to critically examine and interpret them. As we move forward, the thoughtful, prayerful use of AI technology by Christian teachers has the potential to unlock new possibilities and redefine the landscape of Christian education for generations to come.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.