How might AI diminish student agency?

Or could it flourish?

Tom Barrett


In preparation for the third dialogue in my free webinar series on AI, I met with guests Claire Amos and Philippa Wintle from Albany Senior High School in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.

We are all set for a fascinating session next Wednesday, and a brief comment by Claire has been on my mind all week. I paraphrase, but it was along the lines of:

Artificial intelligence tools have the potential to reduce student agency.

Tom x MJ

You will know I advocate for balancing the hype about AI with some contrarian ideas and taking up a critical position. So let’s spend a moment to speculate on the impact of AI on learner agency.

In this context, let’s agree that agency is an intricate combination of students having a say in their experience (voice), an active part in the decision-making about their learning experience (choice) and they are personally invested in the process (responsibility).

(Adapted from the work of Chris Harte and Summer Howarth in “Renegotiating learning in a hybrid world.”)

How might AI reduce agency?

Voice — Large Language Models and other generative AI tools are the outcomes of a world built by adults. Students feel passive in response to this new technological architecture. Many decisions about access, deployment and AI literacy across the learning ecosystem do not involve students.

Choice — Everything is powered up by a layer of AI, which creates a paradox of choice for many students. Many feel that we did not ask for AI, which is forced into our learning tools. Teachers strain to control the learning environment more, pulling choice away from students. Progress is stalled, and old “reliable” methods are resurrected.

Responsibility — Large chunks of the learning and creative process are outsourced to AI assistants in every hyper-anthropomorphised flavour. A crisis of trust arises as the first feedback response is always “synth?”. Ethical responsibility is kept at a distance as students engage with strained and obfuscated tools that bear no resemblance or connection to their origins. AI becomes more opaque to students.



Tom Barrett

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