Imagining students’ progression in the era of generative AI

Generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools are becoming more easily accessible to learners and educators, and increasingly better at generating code solutions to programming tasks, code explanations, computing lesson plans, and other learning resources. This raises many questions for educators in terms of what and how we teach students about computing and AI, and AI’s impact on assessment, plagiarism, and learning objectives.

Brett Becker.

We were honoured to have Professor Brett Becker (University College Dublin) join us as part of our ‘Teaching programming (with or without AI)’ seminar series. He is uniquely placed to comment on teaching computing using AI tools, having been involved in many initiatives relevant to computing education at different levels, in Ireland and beyond.

In a computing classroom, two girls concentrate on their programming task.

Brett’s talk focused on what educators and education systems need to do to prepare all students — not just those studying Computing — so that they are equipped with sufficient knowledge about AI to make their way from primary school to secondary and beyond, whether it be university, technical qualifications, or work.

How do AI tools currently perform?

Brett began his talk by illustrating the increase in performance of large language models (LLMs) in solving first-year undergraduate programming exercises: he compared the findings from two recent studies he was involved in as part of an ITiCSE Working Group. In the first study — from 2021 — the results generated by GPT-3 were similar to those of students in the top quartile. By the second study in 2023, GPT-4’s performance matched that of a top student (Figure 1).

A graph comparing exam scores.

Figure 1: Student scores on Exam 1 and Exam 2, represented by circles. GPT-3’s 2021 score is represented by the blue ‘x’, and GPT-4’s 2023 score on the same questions is represented by the red ‘x’.

Brett also explained that the study found some models were capable of solving current undergraduate programming assessments almost error-free, and could solve the Irish Leaving Certificate and UK A level Computer Science exams.

What are challenges and opportunities for education?

This level of performance raises many questions for computing educators about what is taught and how to assess students’ learning. To address this, Brett referred to his 2023 paper, which included findings from a literature review and a survey on students’ and instructors’ attitudes towards using LLMs in computing education. This analysis has helped him identify several opportunities as well as the ethical challenges education systems face regarding generative AI. 

The opportunities include: 

  • The generation of unique content, lesson plans, programming tasks, or feedback to help educators with workload and productivity
  • More accessible content and tools generated by AI apps to make Computing more broadly accessible to more students
  • More engaging and meaningful student learning experiences, including using generative AI to enable creativity and using conversational agents to augment students’ learning
  • The impact on assessment practices, both in terms of automating the marking of current assessments as well as reconsidering what is assessed and how

Some of the challenges include:

  • The lack of reliability and accuracy of outputs from generative AI tools
  • The need to educate everyone about AI to create a baseline level of understanding
  • The legal and ethical implications of using AI in computing education and beyond
  • How to deal with questionable or even intentionally harmful uses of AI and mitigating the consequences of such uses

Programming as a basic skill for all subjects

Next, Brett talked about concrete actions that he thinks we need to take in response to these opportunities and challenges. 

He emphasised our responsibility to keep students safe. One way to do this is to empower all students with a baseline level of knowledge about AI, at an age-appropriate level, to enable them to keep themselves safe. 

Secondary school age learners in a computing classroom.

He also discussed the increased relevance of programming to all subjects, not only Computing, in a similar way to how reading and mathematics transcend the boundaries of their subjects, and the need he sees to adapt subjects and curricula to that effect. 

As an example of how rapidly curricula may need to change with increasing AI use by students, Brett looked at the Irish Computer science specification for “senior cycle” (final two years of second-level, ages 16–18). This curriculum was developed in 2018 and remains a strong computing curriculum in Brett’s opinion. However, he pointed out that it only contains a single learning outcome on AI. 

To help educators bridge this gap, in the book Brett wrote alongside Keith Quille to accompany the curriculum, they included two chapters dedicated to AI, machine learning, and ethics and computing. Brett believes these types of additional resources may be instrumental for teaching and learning about AI as resources are more adaptable and easier to update than curricula. 

Generative AI in computing education

Taking the opportunity to use generative AI to reimagine new types of programming problems, Brett and colleagues have developed Promptly, a tool that allows students to practise prompting AI code generators. This tool provides a combined approach to learning about generative AI while learning programming with an AI tool. 

Promptly is intended to help students learn how to write effective prompts. It encourages students to specify and decompose the programming problem they want to solve, read the code generated, compare it with test cases to discern why it is failing (if it is), and then update their prompt accordingly (Figure 2). 

An example of the Promptly interface.

Figure 2: Example of a student’s use of Promptly.

Early undergraduate student feedback points to Promptly being a useful way to teach programming concepts and encourage metacognitive programming skills. The tool is further described in a paper, and whilst the initial evaluation was aimed at undergraduate students, Brett positioned it as a secondary school–level tool as well. 

Brett hopes that by using generative AI tools like this, it will be possible to better equip a larger and more diverse pool of students to engage with computing.

Re-examining the concept of programming

Brett concluded his seminar by broadening the relevance of programming to all learners, while challenging us to expand our perspectives of what programming is. If we define programming as a way of prompting a machine to get an output, LLMs allow all of us to do so without the need for learning the syntax of traditional programming languages. Taking that view, Brett left us with a question to consider: “How do we prepare for this from an educational perspective?”

You can watch Brett’s presentation here:

Join our next seminar

The focus of our ongoing seminar series is on teaching programming with or without AI. 

For our next seminar on Tuesday 11 June at 17:00 to 18:30 GMT, we’re joined by Veronica Cucuiat (Raspberry Pi Foundation), who will talk about whether LLMs could be employed to help understand programming error messages, which can present a significant obstacle to anyone new to coding, especially young people.  

To take part in the seminar, click the button below to sign up, and we will send you information about how to join. We hope to see you there.

The schedule of our upcoming seminars is online. You can catch up on past seminars on our blog and on the previous seminars and recordings page.

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