The Korea Herald


[Jieun Kiaer] AI natives: How children should read in our time

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 29, 2024 - 05:21

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The term digital native was coined in 2001 by Marc Prensky. In his article "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," Prensky applied the term to young people who grew up surrounded by computers, mobile phones and other tools of the digital age.

The devices and technologies that Prensky was referring to were greatly different to those we use now. We no longer have dial-up internet connections or clunky computers. Our digital experience has undergone dramatic changes.

ChatGPT was released to the public by OpenAI on Nov. 30, 2022, and it quickly gained worldwide attention. Every day, we come across articles discussing what AI or Large Language Models can and can't do, as well as speculations about their future impact. What was once a topic for AI experts has now become a concern for everyone. In my new book "The Future of Syntax: Asian Perspectives in an AI Age," I updated Prensky’s term to AI native in acknowledgment of this shift.

Those born between 1997 and 2010 (Gen Z) and those born after 2010 (Generation Alpha), and future generations are AI natives. AI is their playmate and VR (virtual reality) is their playground; it’s an integral part of their day-to-day experience.

For them, simply banning AI or the usage of AI would seem largely unfair and irrational. It would be like preventing the use of a dictionary for the pen and paper generation or forbidding Google in homework for Millennials.

The issue is neither about giving or not giving them access to AI – or even teaching or not teaching them about it. We need to help them use AI in a constructive and creative way. For instance, teachers can advise AI natives not to simply rely on technology but use it to maximize their performance. It is the teachers’ role to alert them that AI -- though it is named “intelligent” -- can often lead down an “unintelligent” path. Teachers need to understand both the digital bliss and possible digital trouble that AI can manifest in their classrooms.

As an educator, my primary concern is how to use AI constructively and creatively in a way that benefits both students and teachers. This week, I participated in the Bett Show 2024, one of the UK's largest EdTech events.

Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, particularly with the rapid development of AI. During the event, I had the opportunity to deliver a talk to a delegation of Korean teachers from AI pilot schools. Korea stands at the forefront of using AI in children's education, and to the best of my knowledge, the introduction of AI interactive textbooks in 2025 will be a pioneering global initiative.

This aligns well with Korea's motto of "ppali ppali," which means quick-quick, and it begins with young primary school children. While teachers expressed mixed feelings, I too pondered whether being the first in AI education is really the path to providing a better future for our children.

AI education is not an option -- it's the destiny for AI natives. Recent research has shown that even 1-year-old children are learning to use their index finger for skim-reading and to immerse themselves in multi-modal digital and tablet books.

However, alongside AI-assisted skim-reading and immersion, children also need to develop the habit of slow and close reading with physical books. Of course, AI can generate the content you ask, but it won’t have the creativity and imagination that children naturally have.

The way to nourish their creativity is through the slow, close reading of a physical book possibly with their parents. Reading this way becomes a physical, sensual activity that develops our brains for multi-modal understanding. It's vital for our children to read as well as immerse themselves at an early stage. This habit is even more important with the arrival of AI, as it encourages them to think, contemplate, question and explore.

Screen reading and skim reading have value, particularly in processing large amounts of data in a limited amount of time. Yet, skim reading may fail to equip our growing children to understand nuanced, complex and emotional meanings of text and life. This ability can’t be attained quickly later in life if they do not learn in their youth.

Many people ask me whether AI and humanoid robots will soon be able to replace parents and help babies to acquire their mother tongues. I am skeptical of the idea. Learning a mother tongue is more than learning a skill. Throughout our history, parents and carers have been the ones who passed on their languages through interactions mostly based on trust and love -- the human emotions AI cannot mimic. It is important for us to help our children enjoy both worlds -- physical and virtual -- in a balanced way.

It’s time for us to think what that balance might be.

Jieun Kiaer

Jieun Kiaer is a Young Bin Min-KF professor of Korean linguistics at the University of Oxford. -- Ed.