When ChatGPT debuted late last year, Bob Nelson ’91, EdD ’18 remembers how the language processing tool powered by artificial intelligence led many educators to panic. “They were like, ‘Oh, my God. Kids are going to misuse this tool in harmful ways,” he says.
But the chatbot did not particularly faze Nelson, superintendent of Fresno Unified School District. Rather than focus on how students might misuse the technology, Nelson wants to help them understand how to use it “safely and responsibly,” he says.
Since the technology has only recently become widely accessible to the public, Fresno Unified is still in the process of developing districtwide policy around ChatGPT, and AI generally. Ultimately, according to Nelson, the district’s approach to AI will consider the technology’s benefits to students instead of its potential pitfalls alone.
As districts enter a second school year with ChatGPT, administrators say it’s important to consider not only how students might interact with AI but also how teachers could. Some districts, such as Glendale Unified School District, have already held professional development sessions about AI or intend to educate parents about the technology. Others are exploring how AI has the capacity to support a school system’s administrative functions, such as recruiting staff or identifying troubling trends like absenteeism.
However AI is used, Vivian Ekchian EdD ’19, who retired as Glendale Unified superintendent in June, says it should be engaged thoughtfully.
“Everyone should be mindful of ethical considerations, data privacy and the need for human oversight to ensure that AI technologies enhance education effectively and responsibly,” Ekchian says. “We also have to consider that AI is not going away, and we need to teach our students the correct ways to use and navigate the world with it.”
Maria Ott, professor of clinical education at USC Rossier and a former superintendent, says AI is part of the future. Some people may be inclined to fight it, but it would be smarter to figure out how to use it in a way that improves society, she says. At the same time, she adds, “We need to anticipate what could go wrong, and we need to put safeguards in place. That’s my thinking.”
Fresno Unified has a policy committee that will develop guidelines for AI use within the next year. In the meantime, students will be held to the same standards about inappropriate use—such as using ChatGPT to complete their homework—as they would be if they plagiarized an assignment.
“But we’re not scaring kids away from it,” Nelson says. “We’re trying to educate about what utilization of AI can do for you as a young person.”
Ekchian says the technology’s advantages are numerous, including that AI can be used for personalized learning. “There are AI-powered educational platforms and adaptive learning systems,” she says. “AI can be very helpful with intelligent tutoring systems that provide interactive and personalized support for students.”
“AI is not going away, and we need to teach our students the correct ways to use and navigate the world with it.” — Vivian Ekchian EdD ’19, Superintendent, Retired, Glendale Unified School District
For AI to be used in this way, however, teachers need to be very familiar with how their students learn and perform. They also need to make sure that students are comfortable with the technology. The digital divide means that some students may be very acquainted with AI, while others may have significantly less experience with such technology.
“Having some students have access to it and others who don’t is non-negotiable; it’s not acceptable,” Ekchian says. “So, if there’s on-demand tutoring without an actual person or live Zoom tutoring that only some students have access to, then at GUSD, it’s our responsibility to make sure that all of our students can benefit from it, and access is no longer limited to those who can afford it.”
AI also has benefits for teachers, as the technology can be used to automate the grading of assignments, quizzes and tests, allowing educators to spend more time getting to know their students instead of spending hours correcting their work.
“I think what would be really helpful to know is that assessment and grading starts with a teacher determining the parameters of what will be measured, what kind of progress will be measured,” Ekchian says. “It needs to be based on what has been taught, so the teacher is in control of what simulations are prepared or assessments are prepared.”
For educators to employ AI effectively, they need to participate in ongoing training on how to use and incorporate the technology into their teaching, Eckhian adds. Whether teachers create templates or interactive materials for students using AI, they need training on the best practices to facilitate learning. In August, GUSD held a three-day professional development training that included a 90-minute session called “Using AI to Supercharge Your Teaching” by Dyane Smokorowski, a National Teacher Hall of Fame inductee and 2013 Kansas Teacher of the Year. According to Lena Kortoshian, senior director of teaching and learning at GUSD, Smokorowski’s workshop helped Glendale educators enhance their teaching skills via apps like ChatGPT, Curipod, QuillBot and SlidesAI.io. In the training, teachers also learned “how to streamline administrative tasks and empower students to achieve their full academic potential,” Kortoshian says. “Teachers were excited to see how this seemingly disruptive new technology can move our practice and craft forward.”
Ott commends Glendale Unified for training its teachers on the technology during a time when many school districts are simply trying to figure out what AI is.
“Teachers will figure out ways to use it effectively, and they’ll also be able to identify where it’s not having the kind of outcome that might be intended or it’s having a negative outcome,” Ott says. “They’re the professionals” and need to be pulled into conversations about AI, she says.
The technology has the potential to help administrators, too.
“We’re exploring every positive possible use of AI,” Nelson says. Fresno Unified is looking into using the technology to create an early warning system for chronic absenteeism. Nelson hopes to determine whether AI can be used to spot signs and patterns in student behavior indicating that missed days of school will become an ongoing problem.
The superintendent also plans to use AI as a recruiting tool for prospective district employees and to help him write the numerous recommendation letters he’s asked to complete each school year.
Informing parents about AI will also be an important step. Many families in Nelson’s district—in an agricultural epicenter where most students are economically disadvantaged—may not be familiar with technological advances such as chatbots, he says. During the pandemic, however, the district offered extensive IT support to parents after outfitting each household it serves with a computer device. Now, district officials are beginning to have conversations with parents about what AI is and appropriate uses for the technology.
AI, Nelson says, “is just another research tool that we need to teach our folks, both adults and kids, to utilize responsibly and try to leverage in whatever way we can.”