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AI Integration and the Alternative Diploma Dilemma

Exploring Secondary Pathways
By Jérémie Rostan
AI Integration and the Alternative Diploma Dilemma

All around the world and for some time now, schools have been developing alternative diplomas, providing students with options beyond the established and more traditional pathways available to them. While this laudable effort is now spreading and accelerating even further with collaborative initiatives such as the Pathways Summit, experience tells us that schools tend to run into similar difficulties in their endeavors - hurdles that find their origin in two dilemmas inextricably tied to the very root of such projects. By untangling them, we can not only clarify the nature of the problem but also start devising solutions, such as strategic artificial intelligence (AI) integration.

First Dilemma: Innovative High School Diploma vs. Traditional College Acceptance

The first dilemma stems from the very “alternative” nature of these high school diplomas. On the one hand, they are designed to be innovative and break free from the constraints of traditional education in both form and content. For instance, these pathways might transcend the boundaries of disciplinarity, immerse students in real-life experiences that nurture soft as well as executive skills, and replace assessments with portfolios and celebrations of learning. On the other hand, while doing so, they must also ensure that students are not left behind and still have the option to pursue a traditional post-secondary education if such is their path. Ironically, future-readiness and even college-preparedness might not be fully aligned with college acceptance constraints just yet.

Second Dilemma: Accessibility vs. Autonomy

The second dilemma arises from an underlying ambiguity in the use of the term "alternative." Oftentimes, these new pathways are challenging to design because they are, in fact, intended to serve two very distinct purposes (and, potentially, student populations). One is to implement those best practices in curriculum and instruction that are grounded in the most recent research – but also difficult to integrate into established systems. As mentioned earlier, this might include prioritizing the development of 21st-century skills through collaborative projects that tackle real-world challenges, especially in the STEM field. However, this is not necessarily compatible with the other goal of these alternative diplomas, which is usually to provide accessible options for students whose needs are not easily met in more traditional, highly academic, exam-based, and content-heavy programs. Indeed, these learners might not necessarily find a better fit in environments where self-motivation, long-term planning, and time management are even more paramount.

Potential Solution: AI Integration

There seems to be little chance that alternative pathways will ever grow into successful and sustainable programs unless we address these two problems successfully. Fortunately, the rapid development of AI technologies might offer solutions.

Regarding college acceptances, the hiatus between alternative diplomas and traditional college requirements is, in large part, a problem of transcription. Once complying with external programs is no longer needed, there is no particular reason why innovative teaching and learning methods could not ensure that students also develop the necessary competencies in language, mathematics, science, and other subjects. The curriculum design work involved in doing so through student-led transdisciplinary projects (for instance), might be quite complex - but this is precisely the kind of task where generative AI can be of tremendous help. The same would very much be true when it comes to expressing these unique learning experiences in conventional transcript terms.

A good example, here, is the International School of Panama’s ready-to-launch Innovation and Entrepreneurship Diploma (iED). A one-course certificate at first, iED is now a full-fledged two-year offering. Thanks to a unique partnership developed by Bill Hatcher and Allwyn Bryner with leading Tier-1 research universities in the United States, iED students have the opportunity to earn up to 13 college credits from the University of Delaware, University of Iowa, and Syracuse University. Still, combining an “Innovation Lab” (applied science), classes called “From Ideas to Action” (applied business and management) or “Persuasive Communication” (applied English), a capstone project, and more, into one integrated and coherent learning experience that would also fit our school’s standards-based framework was quite the undertaking - and one where large language models did a lot of the heavy lifting, reducing our cognitive load so we could focus on collaborative creative thinking. Moving forward, AI could even help design personalized alternative curricula matching the exact requirements of students with very specific future paths.

Likewise, AI integration can also help make alternative diplomas as inclusive as they are innovative by providing students with the necessary technological assistance. Not only can it help with planning, organization, and time management, but it also makes research, analysis, composition, and feedback more accessible than ever before - all while giving teachers the time required to converse with students 1:1 or in small groups. Such is the path we have started to tread as we explore how AI literacy and personal assistants might help students take full advantage of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Diploma - and thrive in their future studies and work environment.

Importantly, such AI integration models for students the kind of innovative spirit and risk-taking that alternative diplomas are specifically designed to foster. To be a good model, it should be responsible and responsive: measured, constantly monitored, and adapted. Yet again, the necessary feedback protocols in this ongoing design process are simply another opportunity to give students a voice and active role in their own learning - an important feature of future-ready pathways.


Read more in the Exploring Secondary Pathways series with Join the Conversation and Designing an Innovative High School Diploma Together.

Jérémie Rostan is the high school curriculum coordinator and instructional coach at International School of Panama.


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