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Transparency when using AI in schools

The Aktivitetsdata for vurdering og tilpassing (AVT) project is a research and development project focused on the use of digital learning analytics in schools. The project explores the use of learning analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse pupil activity data from various digital learning tools.

Activity data is the term used for the data that are generated when a pupil completes activities in a digital learning tool. Such data could comprise information about which activity the pupil completed, how long they spent working on it, and whether or not they answered correctly.

The purpose of the project is to develop a solution that can help teachers to adapt their teaching to the individual pupil. For example, when maths teacher Magnus starts preparing his class for the exam, the system will come up with a revision proposal based on the work the pupils have done recently. Maybe the AI will suggest more algebra for Alfred and more trigonometry for Tina because this is where it has identified the largest gaps in their knowledge?

In addition to individually adapted teaching, the project’s purpose is to give pupils greater insight into their own learning and support teachers in their pupil assessments. The goal of adapted teaching is to ensure that the pupils achieve the best possible learning outcome from their education. On a more general level, the AVT project aims to drive the development of national guidelines, norms and infrastructure for the use of AI in the teaching process.

Specifically, the AVT project uses an open learner model as well as analytics and recommendation algorithms to analyse learning progress and make recommendations for pupils. Analysis results are presented in an online portal (dashboard) customised for each user group – such as teachers, pupils and parents. Users log in to the portal via Feide.

The project owner for the AVT2 project is the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (KS). The project is led by the University of Bergen (UiB) and its Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology (SLATE). The City of Oslo’s Education Agency has been the project's main partner and driving force since it commenced in 2017. Recently, the Municipality of Bærum and the regional inter-municipal partnership Inn-Trøndelag have also joined the project in smaller roles.

The sandbox discussed three aspects of transparency:

  • User involvement to understand the risk and the types of information the user needs
  • How to provide information tailored to the users
  • Whether it is necessary to explain the algorithm's underlying logic

User involvement to understand risk and information needs

The AVT project invited pupils, parents/guardians, teachers and municipal data protection officers to participate in a project workshop to discuss privacy risks relating to the use of learning analytics. Understanding the risks to users posed by the system is important if relevant and adequate information is to be provided. Transparency about the use of personal data is not simply a regulatory requirement to enable the individual to have as much control as possible over their own data. Transparency about the use of data can also be important to reveal errors and distortions in the system.

The workshop participants were given a presentation on the learning analytics system, which was followed by discussions in smaller groups: one group comprising children and adults, and one group comprising only adults. The groups were tasked with identifying risks to the pupils’ privacy resulting from use of learning analytics. Below, we have summarised the discussions with respect to three types of risks.

Risk of altered behaviour/chilling effect

When pupils work with digital learning tools, potentially detailed data may be captured and stored. For example, how long a pupil spends on a task, the time of day they do their homework, improvement in performance over time, etc. Keeping track of what data have been registered about them and how these data are used can be challenging for pupils.

The pupils who participated in the workshop were especially worried about the system monitoring how long it took them to complete a task. They pointed out that if the time they spent working on a problem was recorded, they could feel pressured into solving the problems as quickly as possible, at the expense of quality and learning outcome. A chilling effect may arise if pupils change their behaviour when they are working with digital learning tools because they feel the learning analytics system is tracking them. In other words, they change their behaviour because they do not know how their data may be used.

Another example of a chilling effect mentioned in the discussions was that pupils may not feel as free to experiment in their problem-solving, because everything they do in the digital learning tools is recorded and may potentially affect the profile built by the learning analytics system.

If the introduction of an AI-based learning analytics system in education leads to a chilling effect, the AI tool may be counterproductive. Instead of the learning analytics system helping to provide each individual pupil with an education adapted to their needs, the individual pupil adapts their scholastic behaviour to the system.

Adequate information about the type of information collected and how it is used (including which information is not collected and used) is important in order to give the user a sense of assurance and control. It can also help to counteract unintended consequences, such as pupils potentially changing their behaviour unnecessarily. 

Risk of incorrect personal data in the system

A fundamental principle in the data protection regulations is that any personal data processed must be correct. Incorrect or inaccurate data in a learning analytics tool could have a direct impact on the individual pupil’s profile. This could, in turn, affect the teacher’s assessment of the pupil’s competence and the learning resources recommended for the pupil.

The learning analytics system collects data on the pupils’ activities from the digital learning tools used by the school. One potential source of incorrect data, which was discussed by the adult participants in the workshop, is when a pupil solves problems on someone else’s behalf. This has probably always been a risk in education, and there is no reason to believe that a transition to digital activities has changed anything in this regard.

However, the impact on the individual pupil may be far greater now, if the data from this problem-solving is included in an AI-based profile of the pupil. For example, the system may be tricked into believing that the pupil is performing at a higher level than they actually are, thus recommending problems the pupil does not yet have the skills to solve. This could have a demotivating effect on the pupil and reinforce their experience of being unable to master a subject or topic.

A similar source of incorrect data is when a pupil deliberately gives the wrong answer in order to manipulate the system into giving them easier or fewer tasks. This, too, is a familiar strategy, used by children since long before the digitalisation of education. What both of these examples have in common is that the problems must be addressed both technologically and by raising awareness in general.

Risk of the technology causing the pupils unwanted stress

Another issue that came up in the workshop was that, for the pupils, use of the learning analytics system risks blurring the line between an ordinary learning situation and a test. Teachers already use information from the pupils’ problem-solving and participation in class as a basis for assessing what pupils have learned. By using a learning analytics system, however, this assessment will be systematised and visualised differently to the present system. Pupils expressed concerns that there would be an expectation to show their “score” in the system to peers and parents, in the same way as pupils currently feel pressure to share test results.

Measures to reduce this risk can be designed into the system in a way that emphasises or visualises a “score” or results in a balanced manner. Adequate information about the type of information used for assessment (and what is not used) could also be a means of reducing the uncertainty and stress pupils experience when being assessed in the learning situation. 

How to provide information tailored to the users

It can sometimes be challenging to provide a clear and concise explanation of how an AI-based system processes personal data. For the AVT project, this situation is further complicated by the age range of its users. This system may potentially be used by children as young as six at one end of the range and by graduating pupils in upper secondary school at the other.

One central discussion in the sandbox was how the AVT project can provide information that is simple enough for the youngest pupils, while also meeting the information needs of older pupils and parents. These sandbox discussions can be summarised as follows:

  • Use language that takes into account the youngest pupils – adults also appreciate information that is simple and easy to understand.
  • Include all of the information required by law, but not necessarily in the same place at the same time. Adults and children alike can lose heart if the document or online article is too long. One guiding principle may be to focus not only on what the pupils/parents need to know, but also when they need this information.
  • It could be beneficial to provide information in layers, where the most basic information is presented first, while at the same time giving the reader an opportunity to read more detailed information on the various topics. Care must be taken to ensure that important information is not “hidden away” if this approach is used.
  • Consider whether it would be appropriate to provide (or repeat) information when the pupils are in a setting where the information in question is relevant, e.g. by means of pop-up windows.
  • Use different approaches – what works for one group may not necessarily work for another. The AVT project included text, video and images in its information materials, and feedback from data subjects indicates that different user groups respond differently to different formats.
  • Be patient and do not underestimate the complexity of the topic or how difficult it can be to understand how the learning analytics system works, as well as the purpose and consequences of implementing this type of system. This applies to both children and adults.

Explaining the system’s underlying logic

The AVT project’s learning analytics system is a decision-support system. This means that the system produces proposals and recommendations, but does not make autonomous decisions on behalf of the teacher or pupil. If the system had taken automated decisions, it would have been covered by Article 22 of the GDPR, which requires relevant information to be provided about the system’s underlying logic. Whether information about the logic must be provided if there is no automatic decision-making or profiling must be considered from case to case, based on whether it is necessary for the purpose of securing fair and transparent processing.

In the sandbox, we came to no conclusions about whether the AVT project is legally obligated to provide information about the underlying logic of the learning analytics system. We did, however, discuss the issue in light of the objective of the sandbox, which is to promote the development of ethical and responsible artificial intelligence. In this context, we discussed how explanations that provide users with increased insight into how the system works could increase trust in the system, promote its proper use and uncover potential defects.

But how detailed should an explanation of the system be? Is it sufficient to simply provide a general explanation for how the system processes personal data in order to produce a result, or should a reason for every single recommendation made by the system also be provided? And how does one provide the youngest pupils with a meaningful explanation? This sandbox project did not offer any final or exhaustive conclusions on these issues, but we did discuss benefits, drawbacks and various alternative solutions.

For the youngest pupils, creativity is a must when it comes to explanations, and these explanations do not necessarily need to be text-based. For example, the AVT project created an information video, which was presented to various stakeholders. The video was well-liked by the children, but garnered mixed reviews from the adults.

The children thought it explained the system in a straightforward way, but the adults found it did not include enough information. This illustrates firstly, how different the needs of different people are, and secondly, how difficult it can be to find the right level and quantity of information. The AVT project has also considered building a “dummy” version of the learning analytics system, which allows users to experiment with different variables. In this way, users can see how information fed into the system affects the recommendations it makes. Visualisation is often quite effective at explaining advanced technology in a straightforward manner. One could have different user interfaces for different target groups, such as one user interface for the youngest pupils and another aimed at older pupils and parents.

A privacy policy is a useful way of providing general information about how the system processes personal data. We also discussed whether individual reasons for the system’s recommendations should be provided. In other words, information about how the system has arrived at the specific recommendation and the data this recommendation is based on. Individual reasons could be made easily accessible by users, but do not necessarily have to be presented alongside the recommendation. There are many benefits to providing reasons for the system’s recommendations. Giving pupils and teachers a broader understanding of how the system works could increase their trust in it. The reasons could also make teachers better able to truly assess the recommendations made by the system, thus mitigating the risk of it being used as an automated decision-making system. (In other words, teachers blindly trusting the system instead of using it to support their own decision.) In addition, examining the reasons given can also help users to uncover errors and distortions in the system, thereby contributing to its improvement.

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