TAFE & Adult Provision AI no match for the human touch in TAFE

Talk of artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere at the moment, but whether it represents a boon to humanity or our downfall depends on the commentator. Either AI will enhance human creativity, freeing us from the burden of rote tasks; or prove to be a menace, rendering human input redundant and robbing us of our intellectual property and, possibly, our jobs.

When ChatGPT was introduced in 2022, many were appalled at the possibility that a robot, given the right algorithmic input, might be able to produce a Shakespearean sonnet. Journalism, therapy, poetry: these are considered innately human endeavours. But generating curriculum, course-work, or lesson plans? Plenty of educators would happily delegate these tasks. 

When an AI curriculum-writing project was rolled out in 2023 at a metropolitan TAFE, it’s not surprising that overworked and overstretched TAFE teachers thought this might be something worth celebrating. The reality, of course, was not so simple. 

Writing new curriculum involves inputting a vast amount of course material, resources, and mapping information; it needs to capture everything taught and make decisions about how this should be sequenced, prioritised, and interpreted, so it is useful and meaningful for students.

“Giving human oversight to ChatGPT was demoralising.”

“Curriculum writing is a massive job,” says one TAFE teacher and AEU member. “Several people brought on board to undertake the writing of new curriculum quit because the task was just so big. As new companies were engaged, it appears they have relied on ChatGPT to create content.”

Ultimately, although a huge dossier of course materials was provided by staff, what finally resulted was a correctly colour-coded array of ‘compliant’ course materials that proved to be utterly useless in the classroom.

“The main problem was that the AI-generated assessments involved a lot of student writing for courses in which writing was not the primary way of assessing progress. Many of the assessment questions were posed in language that was very hard for students and teachers to understand,” the teacher explains.

ChatGPT-generated terminology was not reflective of that used in industry, and students in fields requiring hands-on practice and observation were instead forced to hunker down in computer labs, dealing with often irrelevant text materials.

“This made teachers look like idiots, and only confused the students,” he says. “Some units had 14 assessments, with questions that were so nonsensical that the teacher had to essentially go through each one in class. The teacher was not really teaching, and students were not learning.” The result was mass non-completion rates for these subjects.

In some courses, there was simply no curriculum or resources at all, leaving teachers embarrassed about what looked like poor planning and preparation on their part. Where there were course materials, teachers avoided using them because they were irrelevant and unengaging.

The roll-out was, naturally, expensive. When the money ran out, staff inherited the mess and a sudden surge in workload, tasked with rewriting the course materials.

“Our courses are good; students like them. But the effect of giving human oversight to ChatGPT was ultimately demoralising. Staff were kept at arm’s length from the process. They felt ground down and unappreciated.” And yet, they were expected to ‘fix’ the unworkable AI-written curriculum, and put back in the substance that had been missing.

“If we had been a novice team, the extra work would have been crippling. But we found creative ways of getting around all the mapping requirements, focusing on teaching what is necessary for someone who wants to enter industry.”

Even in the realm of curriculum-writing, AI proved to be no match for human creativity, ingenuity, and expertise. Shakespeare, no doubt, would agree.

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