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South Valley Riverton Journal

Real answers about artificial intelligence in the classroom

Jan 05, 2024 11:03AM ● By Jet Burnham

Valley High School teacher Graham Bany demonstrates the AI he uses in his classroom to Congressman Burgess Owens. (Photo courtesy of Darrell Robinson.)

Editor’s note: this is part of a series of articles about artificial intelligence in schools.

While many express concerns about how AI will affect their job or their way of life, Jordan School District employees are already using AI to improve their jobs and the way they teach.

During their Nov. 28 meeting, members of the Jordan School District Board of Education approved a five year contract with SchoolAI, an artificial intelligence platform created specifically for schools and developed with input from Jordan District teachers who piloted it.

“AI is here,” board member Darrell Robinson said. “No matter what, it's going to be our reality, so we felt that we needed to take control of it and figure out how to use it instead of banning it and fearing it.”

Jordan School District is leading out among other districts with their early adoption of AI tools, while some other districts have banned AI, Robinson said. Jordan District representatives have been asked to share their approach to AI at a school board convention this month.

Those educators who have been using AI tools for several months are excited to share the benefits of—and to address common concerns about—AI.

Concern: AI is not safe

Answer: Closed AI systems and cautious teachers keep students safe

Amber Saffen, an engineering and robotics teacher at Jordan Academy for Technology and Careers, said caution, not fear, is a reasonable response to AI.

“I think there's a lot of value in approaching any new tool with caution,” she said. “I would alleviate people’s fears by saying schools are aware. Just like we protect students from certain websites but encourage the use of others, we're protecting students from certain AIs. There are plenty of teachers and administrators who are excited about AI, who see the value but understand the risks, and are working so hard so that it is being implemented and that we’re teaching AI literacy, as well.”

Jordan School District is committed to using AI and other technologies ethically and to providing guidance and support within the framework of being: Conscientious, Collaborative, Critical and Creative, as described on their website.

The SchoolAI tool, which is being implemented district-wide, provides safeguards, data security and privacy protections that comply with federal student privacy laws.

“It's a technology that we're just starting to use on a broad scale, and we'll continue to watch to make sure that we're getting all of the benefit and that we're mitigating and eliminating the risks that are associated with any new program,” Jordan School District Superintendent Dr. Anthony Godfrey said. “SchoolAI put a fence around artificial intelligence so that our information doesn't get out and we only let in the information that we want. So we have safeguards in place. We have a lot of training in place, and I'm really optimistic about the way SchoolAI is going to be used.”

Graham Bany, a teacher at Valley High School, said SchoolAI is a closed system, unlike popular public AI interfaces.

“Since the SchoolAI is trained on education content, it's a lot cleaner and easier than an alternative artificial intelligence,” he said. “So, when I create a rubric using SchoolAI, and a rubric using Chat GPT, I get really, really different responses from both of them, because SchoolAI is actually made to help us meet our goals with students.”

Concern: AI will replace teachers

Answer: AI will make better teachers

“The teacher is not getting replaced by AI,” Kevin Morrill of SchoolAI explained. “They're just leveraging AI to be a better teacher, to be more prepared when they go in front of the class. They use our platform to do a lot of the heavy lifting. They get about 80% down the road using the platform on any given thing and then they can put on their creative hats, their experience, and then bake that into it. So we're seeing more prepared lessons, more prepared courses and units. We actually think that AI has the potential to increase humanity in the classroom by giving teachers more time to connect more deeply with students.”

West Jordan Middle School teacher Andrew Holmes said using AI tools to accelerate productivity and reduce time spent on lesson planning allows him to have more time to be a teacher and interact with his students.

“I don’t think this is going to replace me—this is helping the overworked teacher do what they want to do,” he said. 

Many teachers save time by using AI tools for monotonous, time-consuming or complex tasks.

“I regularly use the AI to help me draft an email to respond if I have a very upset parent,” District Math Consultant Amy Kinder said. “I still want to show parents that I care, but it takes so long to craft it, because you know someone's going to pick it apart. AI helps me draft great emails really fast.”

She said AI only generates the first draft.

“I look at it and re-edit it until it feels like a quality educator response with my flair on it—it's never just a copy/paste or anything like that,” Kinder said.

AI is sometimes better than humans at responding appropriately and consistently to students’ behavior, too, Bany said.

“Everyone's so scared of AI and language models and machine learning, but they also forget that the safeguards that are required to be put in place are actually helping with the ways the kids are getting direct one-to-one feedback from the machine that's more consistent than a human,” he said. Unlike a human, SchoolAI’s feedback to students is always positive and it redirects them when they get off-topic or behave inappropriately, he said.

One of his high school students typed a negative comment about another student and the chatbot’s response impressed Bany.

“It said, ‘Hey, you probably should consider not calling someone by rude names, but you should also still be sure to explain the things that they're doing that are making you want to call them that word,’ so even the feedback that it gives when kids are speaking in ways that they shouldn't, it still tries to redirect them positively,” he said.

Concern: Using AI is cheating

Answer: It can be, so teachers are adapting

Within SchoolAI, teachers have control and can set parameters for what the chatbot can and can’t do for students. It cannot be tricked into writing a student’s essay but will act more as a writing coach.

However, students have access to AI tools without these kinds of constraints outside of school. They can find AI tools on the internet to help them study or organize their thoughts, but they can also find answers to cheat on their homework.

“I think the tech has caused many pains for many math teachers,” Kinder said. “Because you can take pictures of math problems or you can Google any math problem and it will tell the answer, so it's like they're taking away the joy of solving it. So I think many of them don't see it as a tool just yet.”

There are AI detectors teachers can use to identify AI generated content, which Saffen said aren’t even always necessary, because she can often tell when a student tries to pass off AI writing as their own.

“ChatGPT does have a very particular voice to it,” she said.

However, sometimes Saffen lets her students use AI-generated content, such as to write a paper explaining their engineering project. 

“I was not grading them on their ability to present the idea in writing,” Saffen said. “The writing was just a medium for them to get their idea into my head.”

But she reminded her students that in other classes, using AI to write a paper is cheating.

“I would totally 100% support and understand any English teacher who said you can't use AI, because what they're assessing is the person's ability to write,” Saffen said.

To prevent students from using AI to cheat, Saffen said teachers will change the way they assess learning, just as teachers did when they realized they couldn’t keep calculators or the internet out of the classroom.

“Teachers don't let you use spell check on a spelling test, but they let you use spell check on your essays, and that's AI or machine learning,” Saffen said. “I totally think it will come down to teachers adapting and figuring out and asking the question, ‘What am I assessing?’ And if the AI is not counteracting what you're trying to assess, then I don't think we as teachers need to be afraid of it.”

Jordan District is already changing the way teachers assess students’ math skills. Nearly all of the district’s middle schools are currently piloting a new interactive method of teaching secondary math skills through rich problem-solving. There is less opportunity to cheat because students solve math problems collaboratively instead of filling out worksheets on their own.

“People think that AI is going to change how everything is done to such a degree that people won't be able to adapt,” Saffen said. “But teachers care about their students, and they care about knowing that their students learned the content. And so if we think that we are no longer able to do that, we will find a way. I’ve known some fantastic teachers and I know they’ll figure it out. It will just take a while. But I don't think AI is going to break everyone, I guess is what I'm saying.”

Concern: AI can’t be trusted

Answer: That’s true, so we make sure students understand that

Kinder was initially distrustful of AI.

“I did have trepidations about it— How is it creating this? Is this from a meaningful place? Can I trust it all the time to do that?” Kinder said.

The solution to the problem of mistrust has been education.

Kinder attended training sessions and webinars to learn to use and understand AI, which helped her feel more comfortable using it. Now she uses it to develop engaging math activities, to collect and organize information for presentations and to craft emails.

Saffen, who uses AI for many tasks, always double-checks its work.

“There's some forms of machine learning that we use, and as teachers we understand what it is we're trying to do, so we're able to identify the weaknesses in that,” Saffen said. When she introduces students to a new tech tool, there is always a conversation about the potential impacts and weaknesses in its capabilities.

“The students are aware that AI is going to be helpful, but also has potential concerns,” Saffen said. “I had a student ask the chatbot, ‘Is this information I need to cite and how would I cite it?’ I was actually really impressed that my students are already thinking along the conversation line of ‘How do I make sure that just because I'm using an AI, I'm not plagiarizing any ideas?’”

Teachers have been given the opportunity to get ahead of students on AI tools. Before SchoolAI was released district-wide, 100 Jordan District educators piloted SchoolAI and provided feedback that helped designers customize features according to teachers’ needs. For the first few months of the school year, only teachers had direct access to SchoolAI.

“Having teachers on-board early on and engaging with it helps them understand the benefits of SchoolAI,” Godfrey said. “It also helps them help students be good digital citizens, and to use AI effectively and in a way that helps support their learning, instead of using it as a substitute for learning.”

Saffen was impressed that the district offered AI training even before SchoolAI was in use in most classrooms. The Teaching and Learning Department provides regular training, as well as tips and support through their Instagram account and podcast.

“There are a lot of very smart, very capable people who have been at the forefront of this and have been ready for it for a while,” Saffen said.

Jordan School District has prioritized educating stakeholders to ease their concerns about AI in the classroom.

“We'll continue to inform parents and the community about how SchoolAI is being used,” Godfrey said. “Ongoing training is available for teachers to help make sure that we're making the most of artificial intelligence in the classroom.” λ