With the 19th International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education (AIED) being held later this month, it might be a good time to start thinking about the very possible future of AI in schools and what it might mean for your children—both the good and the bad.

If you’re a parent or in the education field, you will no doubt be up to date on the ways that education in public schools and universities across the nation have already been steadily adapting towards a more technology-driven and data-producing form.

Gone are the dusty chalkboards, the endless piles of handwritten essays, the class trips to the magical and always-too-warm computer lab, and those annoying moments when “that” student decides to spend 25 minutes staring out of the window while “using the pencil sharpener.” (And now let’s all take a few minutes to reminisce about our school-age days.)

Instead, students across the nation are utilizing Google’s Chromebooks and collaborating on shared documents. They’re spending class time by using online learning platforms such as Khan Academy and Coursera. They’re watching their teacher via webcam during one of her sick days. What’s more, they’re learning to code as a basic element of their curriculum.

If you were to spend a day shadowing your kid at school, there is no doubt that things would look dramatically different than they did when you were touting around a backpack and crayons. Amidst all of today’s tech developments, students today are receiving an education that is enmeshed with today’s technological tools.

What will schools be like in 20 years? 10? Or even 5?

And more importantly: are our tech-savvy students being prepared to enter a world that is not only rich with technology, but with data-driven entities who desperately want their information?

The future of AI and its role in schools has pros and cons, amazing potential and concerning dangers. If AI is to play a major role in the development of education, what is to become of the large amounts of data that will be produced as a result?

Will schools be ready to protect an upsurge of student data? And will students be educated enough on the importance of data privacy?

Reimagined Schools With The Power Of AI

Education seems to be on a fast track to AI and its potential to transform schools into “smart schools.” In a report by Pearson that argues AI’s forthcoming integral role in the field of education, the authors explain that AIED will provide vital assessments and learning tools to prepare students for future jobs. Per the report’s authors, “AI development is accelerating, permeating every aspect of our lives.”

So what might schools look like when they integrate AI learning systems?

It could mean an advanced tutoring system that serves as a one-to-one tutor without schools having to actually hire one tutor for every student (which we all know would never fit into a school’s budget), or a collaborative learning system that groups together students best suited to each other and then moderates their interactions (no more scooting your desk together with your best friend and your crush—you know you did it too). Or it could even mean incorporating virtual reality into the school day so that students can apply what they have learned to a simulated “real world” situation.

Kind of like when you played The Oregon Trail and had to make it out alive…but a little more advanced. (Anyone else remember that game?)

AIED could even mean a new level of connectedness between students and teachers. Imagine a school where students can connect and collaborate not only on group projects but also in a way that enables those who are struggling to reach out for help from those who are excelling via instant notifications in the classroom. Or imagine if students received alerts for their upcoming class or tomorrow’s tests.

This level of connectedness could transform not only the student’s experience but the teacher’s experience too. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education recognizes that today’s technology has the power to “transform teaching by ushering in a new model of connected teaching” that will accelerate learning and link students to their teachers in a way that personalizes learning.

Essentially, the sky is the limit when we integrate AI into the education system. Such advanced tools can dramatically increase the success of students in school and their likelihood to absorb the information they need for future careers. These tools even have the potential to shift the mindsets of low-achieving students and to prevent bullying.

So as the years go by and we send our kids or our grandkids off to school, there is no doubt that the face of education will continue to change and look different with every generation. In a speech last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos remarked, “[W]e should be ready and willing to embrace change.”

And that “change” is riding in the wake of today’s technological advancements. We’re either ready for it, or we’re not.

High-tech learning systems, collaborative programs, one-to-one education, and school-wide connectedness… it all sounds amazing and full of potential. But what are the risks of this level of advanced technology and connected users? Are students being prepared to interact with technology in more ways than one?

With change, comes new responsibilities and concerns, especially when we’re talking about our kids and their education.

New Limits…And New Dangers?

The magic and amazing potential of future “smart” schools is enough to make any dreamer’s head spin with ideas. Hey—maybe you’re even wishing you could redo 1st through 9th grade just to get a taste of some AI tools.

But before you get carried away, it might be wise to pause for a second and think about the potential dangers of AI in schools and the connectedness that it promises.

In order for AI education systems to truly be effective, they require large amounts of data in order to be the best that they can be.

What does this mean?

It means educational data mining techniques to track students’ behaviors, their reactions to assignments, their ability to process, and information on their past and current performances in order to identify what they need.

It means large amounts of data being collected about your child.

Yes, AI systems might use assessments that help students learn and excel in classes, but they will also need to glean data for continual improvement and future education. Large amounts of data will be necessary in order to track and improve online systems or tech tools that are being utilized in the classroom.

In today’s world, we all know how invaluable data is. That goes for AI in schools too, who need the data collected from student analyses in order to enhance, rework, and improve educational tactics for the future.

It’s nothing new—educators have always utilized various forms of assessment and information in order to figure out ways to improve the educational experience for young learners. But today’s (ever advancing) technological and data-dependent lifestyle means that there are more and more ways of gathering more and more information about students.

And this means more and more data that schools have to safely store, which could be a potential risk if schools aren’t knowledgeable about where they’re putting their data and how to keep it protected.

So a question we have to start asking is, “Are we putting our students in more danger as we venture further down the path of AIED?”

AI systems might teach students about everything from finances, to communication, to cultural awareness, to all the basics…but is it teaching students about the information being collected on them and where that information is going?  And more importantly, are teachers staying updated and trained on security measures as they utilize online tools in their classrooms?

Already, schools are experiencing data privacy and security issues as more classrooms become dependent on online tools, and as education technology startups reach out directly to teachers to sign up for their products.

The problem is that when teachers sign up for a new online tool, it leaves school technology directors struggling to keep track of which companies are collecting and utilizing data from students.

Additionally, there’s the added concern of how safe each company’s privacy protection system is.

One school district in California had a scare after signing up for Edmodo, an online learning network, and later learned that the company did not use site-wide SSL to protect its users. And in fact, last year Edmodo experienced a security breach that resulted in usernames, email addresses, and passwords to be acquired by an unauthorized third party.

If schools today are already undergoing risky situations involving new tech tools, what then may the future hold as schools continue to advance in their use of technology?

For example, if a “smart” school allowed students and teachers to be connected in the same way that a smart home is connected, then the school could be at risk for hackers and anyone who might want to divulge private information for their own gain—because in today’s world, private data is money.

The billions of dollars that are being spent on US public elementary and secondary schools is steadily rising, and now, more and more schools are looking to get the most return out of their expenditures by acquiring tech tools that will boost education.

So as educational tech tools get smarter, our security tactics need to get smarter too.

Where To Start: Preparing Students, Parents, and Teachers for Data Privacy Protection

There’s a lot to consider when trying to assess the value of educational tech tools, but first and foremost should be whether or not the user’s private data will be safe in using such tools.

If it’s an online learning platform, a good place to start is to find out whether the site uses full-session encryption, which will protect your child’s private data no matter which internal page they are on.

Another good starting point is to look into the privacy policy of the company whose tech product your child is using. If you read something that is confusing or unclear—ask questions. Find out precisely which information is being gathered from your child or student. Ask whether messaging is allowed within the platform and, if so, learn about the safety policy for the messaging feature.

Additionally, parents and teachers should always be aware of the information that students are submitting for any user profiles they have to make for learning platforms. Students should avoid entering personal data, like e-mail addresses or phone numbers, and use avatars instead of an actual photo of themselves.

Here’s a tip: take some time to educate yourself and your children about the basics of online safety and data privacy. Have a conversation with them and learn about online safety and data privacy tactics together, and then continue the conversation throughout the school year. (Also, take them out for ice cream.)

Buckle Up and Prepare For the Future

The world is changing and each year brings new tools and innovative machines. The education system is looking to technology and AI for further potential in transforming the way our kids learn, thus setting them up for a brighter future and broadening their horizons.

We’re seeing online systems and personal computers taking classrooms by storm and then watching as our children experience things that didn’t exist in our own school days.

Some of us are more than ready for AI, and some of us still don’t trust the microwave. And that’s okay.

AI in schools is a future that brings both amazing potential and extreme anxiety because we have to keep up with the potential dangers of online connectedness and data generation.

Are we ready for these changes? Are our children being educated and trained on how to stay safe when accessing data-gathering systems and connected devices?

We can only hope that safety policies will advance as quickly as the advanced technology that’s being marketed to and implemented in schools across the nation.

And if any of you are experiencing anxiety about this, go take a break and play Oregon Trail. It might calm your nerves.