Catholic education participated in the Australian Government’s Inquiry into the use of generative artificial intelligence (AI) in the Australian education system, this week, which is investigating the benefits, impact and risks.

The National Catholic Education Commission’s (NCEC) director of strategy Anna Howarth and Catholic Schools NSW’s (CSNSW) director of education policy Danielle Cronin gave evidence to the inquiry of the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training.

Anna said Catholic education recognises the broad range of strengths and benefits that generative AI can bring to improve school and education outcomes.

“While the concept of generative AI is not new, over the last 12 months schools and other educational institutions have had to adapt quickly, responding to challenges and opportunities presented through its proliferation in education. Generative AI is changing the education landscape at pace and in powerful ways,” Anna said.

“Catholic schools, in the main, have adopted a cautiously optimistic approach to these new technologies, recognising their potential educational and professional benefits.

“There are many excellent examples of Catholic schools and systems embracing the power of AI to innovate their teaching, learning and administrative practices. However, Catholic education is also alert to the risks, not just in the areas of privacy, security, student safety and academic integrity but also in terms of the existential risks to human relationships, human connection and human creativity.”

Responding to the acting chair of the committee, Member for Longman Terry Young MP, Danielle outlined approaches to address some of the concerns of AI, particularly equity and safety concerns.

“…schools and school systems – particularly in the Catholic sector – are taking a planned, considered approach to not only providing more equitable access to high-quality AI tools in schools but ensuring teachers and families are well supported to make good decisions and to guide students’ use.

“There’s a lot of work underway – some of it is still in the embryonic stages, and in other contexts it’s much more well developed to ensure we are much better placed to support greater student uptake.”

Danielle said while there is talk that generative AI will transform schooling as we know it, “we’re not there yet”.

“I would say that it [generative AI] has become an adjunct. It’s a way that we’re augmenting traditional or existing teaching practice. So it is one more thing that sits in a teacher’s or a school’s kitbag in terms of the way that they teach, in terms of pedagogies and in terms of assessment… So it’s probably more on that evolutionary journey rather than that transformational end at the moment.”

Anna said there is significant potential for generative AI to help reduce teacher workload, and there are a number of AI-driven initiatives currently underway across the Catholic sector which aim to do this.

“We’re working closely with government on the implementation of the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, and we hope to see more innovative AI initiatives supported through the Teacher Workload Reduction Fund.

“NCEC believes there are a number of additional areas where the Commonwealth government can continue to add value to schools and systems in support of the efficient and effective use of generative AI. This includes, firstly, continuing to develop national and, indeed, international guardrails around AI development and its use, especially in high-risk settings, including education-specific safety standards; and, secondly, ensuring national equity of access to quality AI tools and resources in schools. It’s important that the potential of AI should reduce and not widen the technology gap across schools.

“The Commonwealth can also add value by continuing to develop and disseminate guidance, quality curriculum materials and professional learning for teachers and school leaders to ensure that AI is innovating classroom practices in a safe, responsible, ethical and equitable manner.

“Additionally, there’s a role for accelerating high-quality independent research and evaluation of AI tools and their impact in education settings and more broadly.

“Finally, there should be support for the development of materials for parents and communities on the risks and benefits of AI and how they can support their children to understand and respond to those risks and benefits.”

The committee is continuing to accept submissions to the inquiry addressing the terms of reference by 14 July 2023.