“You have to know about it because your students will be using it.” An Interview with Helen Crompton

“Mobile is incredible, but combined with AI, it’s a game-changer”. Visual created with Microsoft Bing Image Creator

Dr. Helen Crompton is an Associate Professor of Instructional Technology, at Old Dominion University (ODU). She is the Director of the Virtual Reality Lab and the Technology Enhanced Learning Lab (TELL) at ODU and the Executive Director of the Research Institute of Digital Innovation in Learning (RIDIL). She is a consultant for various governments and bilateral and multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Bank on educational technology topics. She also consults for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Helen Crompton brings both curiosity and empathy to impactful topics such as mobile learning, robotics, and now, generative artificial intelligence in education. Her service and patience are seemingly endless: Right before our interview she shared with me that she had given five hours of talks and trainings that day. In our conversation, she  urges educators to shape AI usage through informed practice. Education faculty in particular need to be well-versed in generative AI tools. They owe this to their students and the broader community. However, given the rapidly evolving landscape of education technology, Helen acknowledges that it is natural to feel apprehensive. The interview is brimming with ideas for channeling generative artificial AI as a positive, equalizing force in education while being mindful of barriers and problems.

The future of education will look different

Stefanie Panke: My first question is, how did you first encounter AI? What were your initial impressions, and what made you think it’s a transformative technology?

Helen Crompton: That’s an easy one. Throughout my journey in education and technology, I’ve encountered two major game-changers. The first was mobile technologies. The ability to contextualize learning with mobile devices allowed for a more immersive experience without being tethered to a desk. The second was AI. Around 2017, the International Society for Technology and Education (ISTE) asked me to design a course on integrating AI into the classroom, specifically for K-12 teachers. I delved deeper into AI and was amazed. Mobile is incredible, but combined with AI, it’s a game-changer. Many see only the frontend of AI, but there’s also the backend that enhances tools like Google Translate. It was terrible a while ago, and then with artificial intelligence, it was suddenly super powered. It did so much better. So that’s the back we don’t know about. We just see programs working so much better.

Stefanie Panke: You’ve touched on teacher training and teacher education. Specifically, how should education programs, especially master of education programs, adapt to prepare their students? What steps should they take to ready pre-service teachers, or those teachers seeking additional qualifications, for an AI-saturated K-12 classroom environment?

Helen Crompton: Faculty members have to know about ChatGPT. It’s clear that many educators, even those in ed-tech, are nervous about venturing into AI. It’s vastly different from other technologies. However, It’s not something you can ignore, and say ‘that’s for them, not for us’. Faculty have to know about it and have conversations with their students. It’s essential to adequately prepare faculty. Bring in speakers, organize trainings. Explain it to faculty, because faculty can’t suddenly be expected to know all of this. I was in AI for a while, and I didn’t expect ChatGPT. It was the shocker to me. So we really need to prepare faculty, who can then in turn prepare the future teachers and the in-service teachers.

One of the significant changes is not just about using programs; it’s understanding that ChatGPT has fundamentally shifted how we approach education. If you’re a faculty member who assigns end-of-term papers, realize that these papers could now be written by ChatGPT – unless you’re prepared for this, and have discussed with your students what’s acceptable and what isn’t. At the same time, why are we still doing term papers?  Instead, consider more critical thinking activities. Given that ChatGPT is a conversational agent, we could involve it in debates or use it to draft papers, but then invest time critiquing that output. Why did AI opt for that perspective? What influenced ChatGPT’s response? Did it exhibit bias? The future of education will look different, and we must adapt rather than clinging to old methods.

Stefanie Panke: I’ve cited you in every talk and training I’ve given on this topic with the following statement: This is a historic moment in time you will remember as a before and after, just like the rise of the Internet”. Now, I recall starting university in the late 1990s. Back then, accessing the Internet was confined to a single room where we queued to use it. AltaVista was the go-to search engine, and I remember faculty being somewhat dismissive, thinking that perhaps they could ignore this ‘Internet phase’. Given the transformative potential of AI, echoing the rise of the Internet, what practices do you foresee undergoing dramatic changes?

Helen Crompton: Okay, great question. I tend to say the Gutenberg printing press, the Internet and now ChatGPT, these are the main points of change. So how can education be different? What does it look like going forward? It can look two ways: One absolutely positive, one absolutely terrible. It could be that educators ignore ChatGPT and think everything is okay. And that learners go ahead and use AI to do the work. So basically, learners could get qualifications and whole degrees using ChatGPT where they do nothing and they become unthinking. Well, I say ‘learners’, but they’re not really learning, they are just getting by. So we could have this reality.

Or, we could completely rethink education. As an educator, I now have the tool to do things differently, using critical thinking, having learners debate, have students use AI in support of learning. Imagine you have a classroom with 20 or 30 students. AI allows them to individually refine skills. It’s like talking to someone who is giving you continuous feedback. The educator is very much part of this process, but educators cannot be working with students one on one unless they have a lot of help, which is nice, but certainly not the standard. We can do education as it should be done. We can have transformative, equitable education.

“This is so simple to use”

Stefanie Panke: For teachers, faculty members or K-12, who have never used a generative AI tool before, what would be the first introductory step or prompt they could use to begin understanding the potential?

Helen Crompton: What’s nice is that this is so simple to use. It’s easier to use than a Google search. When you go into Google search, you have that search bar in the middle, and you can ask it questions. It then comes up with a set of websites you have to look at. ChatGPT has the same search bar. You can type in the same question, but instead of directing you to various websites, it provides you with the answer. Someone asked me about any age limits for using it. Technically, students can use it the moment they can write, unless they use the voice-to-text feature on their phones. No special skills are required for this tool. There are advanced techniques like prompt engineering, which allow you to refine your questions. Teaching students to craft questions is a valuable skill. It’s a critical thinking exercise in itself. If you think about Bloom’s taxonomy, creating questions is at the top level. Understanding what you want to ask is essential because you need to think about the information you’re seeking. But, in essence, just play with it, and you’ll quickly grasp how to use this tool. Don’t let anyone be deterred by the idea of artificial intelligence. Even without a computer science background, I would argue that this is one of the easiest technologies to use. Beyond understanding prompt engineering to frame better questions, you can use it right out of the box.

“A one-on-one tutor, very knowledgeable, with infinite patience, available 24/7”

Stefanie Panke: That is so encouraging. Can you maybe comment on a few pedagogical possibilities? Will AI help bridge or deepen the digital and the education divide?. Will it help us give more people access to quality education?

Helen Crompton: What’s really beneficial about it is that, unlike virtual reality where you need to purchase headsets and other equipment, or things like game based learning that require investment, once you have the Internet – which efforts are being made, in collaboration with the United Nations, to make universally accessible – you instantly have access to AI. Furthermore, it’s being developed in numerous languages worldwide. Some might worry about the preservation of less common languages, but the tool can quickly adapt and learn even pocket languages, potentially even helping in preserving them.

Imagine two schools. One school has a lot of money. They have all these staff around the teachers that do marketing, that do writing for them; design flyers, offer editing. You have people doing all this stuff, like a personal assistant. Let’s say, in this school, you have a personal assistant next to you, where you can say, “Oh, just write this, or do this.” That’s great. But there are a lot of schools that do not have any of that. For those schools, ChatGPT has filled these roles. So now the school with less money has the same access. However, the big difference is they don’t have to wait for any person to go away and write. Teachers can just watch it appear straight in front of them and be able to edit there in real time, saying, “Oh, it’s a great email. I need it a bit shorter. I need it to cover this.” And it does all that, with no extra charge. It’s amazing in that way. That’s thinking about it from the educator and school level.

Now, look at it from the student level. What we see every day is that not every student goes home to a family where mom and dad are college-educated, who can share all sorts of information with them, perhaps take them out on trips to see things. They don’t all have that.

Some students have support at home where someone can say, “Oh, you don’t understand that? Let me explain it for you. Let me help you.” That’s marvelous. But then there are students who go home to fantastic, loving parents, and when they show the homework, the parents say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t help you. I’d love to help you, but I can’t.” That’s not great. These students might want to get into college, but they don’t have the same opportunities. Programs like ChatGPT can act as a literal one-to-one tutor. So imagine that—imagine having the money to pay for a one-on-one tutor, very knowledgeable, with infinite patience, available 24/7. That’s what ChatGPT is now providing these students, leveling that playing field. The parents can sit alongside the student while they use ChatGPT and say, “Oh, that’s great. I didn’t know that. I’ve learned something.”

“Remember there’s no real person on the other side who cares”

Stefanie Panke: What are some of the concerns that you have around AI and children? AI in education you mentioned that educators cannot choose to ignore this tool. Educators have a role here, a responsibility, and the duty to be informed, to be at the forefront, and to pass this knowledge on. I can imagine that AI literacy is something that will become a huge topic for all ages and all education levels. What do you think students will need to know to navigate an AI-saturated world? And what are some concerns that you might have?

Helen Crompton: Students need to be digitally literate. That means understanding all kinds of information technologies, not just AI. They need to know how to use these tools and how to be aware. Generative AI, for instance, is powerful. It creates things. But as much as it’s powerful, it can be used for harm. For example, a generative AI could listen to someone’s voice, replicate it, and ask for information they shouldn’t be receiving. We have to prepare students for these telltale signs, just as we do with phishing emails. AI has become so advanced that it can look and sound like us, and not just in static images but in video, too. Deep fakes targeting celebrities and political figures are prevalent. We have to instill in our students a critical awareness. In the Internet age, we joked, “If it’s on the Internet, it must be true.” But now, even seeing isn’t believing. In addition to the dangers of disinformation, we also face issues with tools like ChatGPT. There is the propensity for the AI to “hallucinate” or generate answers that sound correct but aren’t. For instance, if you ask ChatGPT for the world record for crossing the English Channel on foot, it may provide an answer that’s obviously false, but sounds plausible. And while AI can be a valuable tool, students need to understand they’re talking to a machine. They shouldn’t share personal information, and they must remember there’s no real person on the other side who cares. Especially concerning mental health issues, it’s vital to ensure students know the boundaries.

Stefanie Panke: Thank you so much. Each of these topics warrants a much longer discussion, but I want to respect your time. I truly appreciate the work you’re doing in raising awareness and helping educators navigate this new terrain. For those interested in your work, where can they learn more?

Helen Crompton: You can see my work on Google Scholar. I also have a Squarespace website. Generally, I’m easy to find on the Internet.

Video Interview

Watch the complete video interview:


Dr. Helen Crompton is a Professor of Instructional Technology at Old Dominion University Virginia USA. She is the Director of the Virtual Reality Lab and the Technology Enhanced Learning Lab (TELL) at ODU and the Executive Director of the Research Institute of Digital Innovation in Learning (RIDIL). She is a highly experienced researcher, educator, author and presenter in the field of educational technology. She draws from over 20 years in education and a PhD in educational technology and mathematics education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Crompton has won numerous awards in the USA and her home country England, and is ranked among the top 2 percent of scientists in educational technology (cf. Ionnidis, 2022). Dr. Crompton has worked with UNESCO and ITU, two divisions of the United Nations, and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Dr Crompton has presented at national and international conferences on the topic of educational technology and published articles, book chapters, and white papers in this field.



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