Feb 28, 2024 - Technology

School chiefs struggle to craft AI policies

Illustration of a zero and a one balancing on the tip of a pencil

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

As artificial intelligence steamrolls ahead, the nation's K-12 school superintendents are largely flummoxed by how they should teach, use and set guidelines around AI — even though they know it's an imperative.

Why it matters: The jobs of the future will have AI as a cornerstone, and colleges are rapidly introducing majors in it.

Driving the news: The pressing issue of what to do about AI was front and center at the recent annual conference of AASA, the School Superintendents Association — but there were more questions than answers.

  • "We don't think anyone is at an advanced state" of setting ground rules for AI in schools, said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a nonprofit dedicated to K-12 school system technology.

The big picture: A handful of states — including California, Oregon and, most recently, Ohio — have introduced AI toolkits for schools, but most have not.

  • While AI has vast potential to help educators — in devising syllabuses and personalized student lesson plans — it also creates vast problems in the form of plagiarism, academic dishonesty, ethics and biases and deepfakes.

What they're saying: "Even though this is a very new area for all of us, I think it's fair to say that this could be a truly transformative moment for teaching," said longtime school superintendent Susan Enfield, who recently retired from the Washoe County School District in Washington.

  • "We should not presume that we are the experts in this, but we have the responsibility as leaders to put systems in place" to govern AI, Enfield said at a standing-room-only panel discussion on the topic.

Where it stands: Education consortiums and for-profit companies are scrambling to put AI tools in educators' hands, but many worry they're already behind the eight ball.

  • School superintendents feel great urgency to offer guidance and ground rules on a technology that most of them — like most laypeople — don't entirely understand.
  • There are all kinds of resources — like CoSN's "AI readiness checklist" for school district leaders — that suggest how much work still needs to be done to create AI-ready schools.
  • A new group called EmpowerED Superintendents aims to put school leaders in touch with one another to share best practices.

Zoom in: "You can roll this out, and if your teachers are petrified of it, they're not going to do it," said Glenn Robbins, superintendent of the Brigantine Public Schools in New Jersey, a K-8 district near Atlantic City, during a session on AI strategies.

  • He likened ChatGPT and its hallucinations to the early days of Wikipedia, when entries were more likely to contain errors.
  • "We have to tell these teachers and students, after they use these tools — 'Keep doing your research a lot more, to make sure you have the right information,'" Robbins said.
  • "We have a responsibility to teach them to use this properly."

Threat level: Robbins also raised the cautionary tale of a high school in New Jersey where a group of boys allegedly made sexually explicit AI deepfakes of dozens of their female classmates.

  • "There's no policy to deal with that," he said. "How do you deal with that?"

Between the lines: Teachers are worried their students are outpacing them in their ability to use this fast-moving technology.

  • "Some kid tells you they can't code? That same kid has made a Python bot at home to jailbreak Yeezys," said Abran Maldonado, an OpenAI ambassador, in a keynote speech, referring to a programming technique used to secure limited-edition shoes.
  • "This whole space has only been around three years," said Maldonado, founder of generative AI startup Create Labs. "All of this has been peer learning, self-taught."
  • He warned the superintendents: "You're not going to be replaced by AI; you're going to be replaced by somebody who knows how to use AI."

How it works: Tools from vendors like Magic School and Khan Academy's Khanmigo help educators use AI to design lesson plans, and to help prevent cheating.

  • Magic School's "Academic Content Generator" advertises: "Enter your assignment description to receive suggestions on making it more challenging for AI chatbots, promoting higher-level thinking among students."

Reality check: Good teachers tend to know their students' work well enough to tell if something's been ginned up by AI.

  • And — somewhat scarily — teachers themselves are using ChatGPT to grade papers.
  • "One high school teacher told me that he used ChatGPT to evaluate a few of his students' papers and that the app had provided more detailed and useful feedback on them than he would have, in a tiny fraction of the time," Kevin Roose wrote in The New York Times.

The bottom line: Schools will figure out AI to the best of their ability — but it'll be a continuous work in progress.

  • "I think we are all going to borrow from one another, and once the policies start to roll out, you're going to see a lot of commonalities, common language," said Matthew Friedman, superintendent of the Quakertown Community School District in Pennsylvania.
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