Artificial Intelligence

Michigan schools are rethinking artificial intelligence in the classroom

Sterling Heights — First hour starts at 7:20 a.m. at Henry Ford II High School, and most of the teens trickling into classrooms are still waking up.

But inside Jamie Davis’ computer class, 13 students are already on their computers typing away, learning the programming language Python, as they lay the groundwork for their high school course in artificial intelligence.

Utica Community Schools is the first district in Michigan to teach an AI class, showing students what defines the generative, fast-changing technology, how it is used and the social and ethical implications of AI in the world. In the coming months, the students — with the guidance of Davis — will build games, chatbots and predictive models.

“We are diving into different aspects of AI. We start by looking at the data science aspect, how to make sure that data is clean and good data and relevant. We will learn how the AI models are trained and programmed. We will talk about the different uses of AI, how it’s being used, good vs. bad. We are using AI in so many aspects, and people don’t even realize it,” Davis said.

Generative artificial intelligence is everywhere — from voice texts on a smartphone to “watch next” suggestions on streaming services — but its use and implications in K-12 learning and teaching are just starting to be explored nationwide. While many students are already using AI on their own, schools, educators and parents are playing catch-up in understanding the emerging technology that has the potential to affect nearly every aspect of daily life.

A majority of Michigan school districts lack policies on AI’s use in the classroom or for school work, even though it is moving quickly into the lives of young people and as a national debate has emerged over how to best manage the tool in personal lives and workplaces.

That is beginning to change in Michigan, as educators and parents find themselves forced to have conversations about AI — from how it is revolutionizing teaching and learning to fears over whether it’s “cheating.”

“It’s definitely already in schools and happening,” said Lisa Whiteside, a technology integration specialist with Oakland Schools, the intermediate district covering Oakland County. “Some students are already using it day-to-day with voice-to-text; that is AI. Others are diving into generative AI and creating content.”

School district leaders said they have been engaged in year-long conversations about how AI, technology and other disruptions are requiring them to rethink the future of education. One state association of principals is holding a seminar in Macomb County in October to dive deeper into the impact of AI on learning, school policy and process, and day-to-day work inside schools. There is also a five-part series for principals and school leaders to learn about the latest trends in AI and how they can be applied to education.

“We see an opportunity for students to use AI to enhance their learning, for example, for writing or research assistance, and for staff to use AI to improve their productivity,” said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which is among the first districts in Michigan to create a policy around its use. “Of course, there are also risks in the K-12 environment, such as plagiarism and misinformation.”

What is AI?

Generative AI, as defined by the University of Michigan, is a type of artificial intelligence model or tool that, given a prompt or query, is capable of generating new and creative outputs in text, images, video, audio, code or other formats.

It does this by collecting millions of data sets and “training” the system by specifying how the tool should respond when prompted, says UM, which launched a generative AI platform and guidance for use of AI for faculty, staff, and students in August. Other Michigan universities, including Michigan State University and Central Michigan University, have recently updated their guidance and added resources for faculty ahead of the new school year.

ChatGPT is one of many tools available to anyone online that allows a person to type in a question or submit a draft document. It then generates a response based on its training and the input it has received. This makes ChatGPT different from Google, which provides links to information elsewhere on the internet that match a search request but sometimes forces the user to go down rabbit holes searching for answers.

In the K-12 landscape, some students and teachers already use AI in some form. One example is computer-assisted writing tools such as Grammarly or Google Doc’s Smart Compose feature, which makes suggestions as individuals type in lighter gray text.

Middle school students in Ann Arbor public schools use ALEKS, an artificially intelligent learning and assessment system, for some math classes in the district’s online learning program. ALEKS starts with an initial knowledge check and assesses the student’s previous knowledge, giving the student credit for topics already learned about and where the knowledge is retained.

AI is easy to use, said Bill Hart-Davidson, a writing researcher at Michigan State University who studies digital writing and AI. It is good at sorting through a lot of data — more than humans can handle — and finding the patterns that are interesting, he said.

“Students are trying it and checking out what it can do. It’s not hard to use. You just ask it for something, and it gives you a result. Teachers are asking students to use it to get ideas,” Hart-Davidson said. “You can ask it for a few graphs. It’s also good at summarizing. That is its strength and limitation. You can use it to get samples of things you have never seen before, and you have to write.”

The use of AI in K-12 does raise two overriding concerns, he said: Will it lead students to use AI to cheat? And will they use AI to avoid the practice of school work?

“Will they outsource to AI and miss the opportunity is a more likely a problem than outright trying to deceive people,” Hart-Davidson said. “These are commercial services right now. We don’t have a lot of sense of what was used to train them. They produce bad results. The questions need to be accurate for them to be useful.”

Some shift AI approach

A few Michigan districts have started to craft policies around the use of ChatGPT. Bloomfield Hills Schools in Oakland County and the District district have begun asking questions of its students and educators to explore options and future uses.

Vitti, who oversees Michigan’s largest school district, said he recognizes that AI will become a permanent part of the workplace.

“So 21st-century students need to learn how to use AI responsibly and creatively,” Vitti said. “This is why the board adopted an updated policy to avoid unauthorized use of artificial intelligence while setting parameters for how it can be used effectively. As with any tool, we will continue to explore how this can be best integrated into teaching and learning.”

Detroit’s policy says teachers have the discretion to allow students to use the tools for research assistance, data analysis, language translation, language translation, writing assistance and accessibility, such as helping students with disabilities access and understand written materials.

Unauthorized student use of such tools is a “form of plagiarism,” the policy says.

Bloomfield Hills Schools created a two-page FAQ to explain the basics of AI and offer ideas for how parents and teachers can use AI with students. The Oakland County district also created a rainbow-colored diagram with six AI scenarios — from copy-and-pasted AI-generated info to feedback on a draft — and asks the reader: Is this cheating?

The district earlier this year posted a statement on its website: “We believe that if technology is going to be a part of our students’ lives, it is our responsibility to teach them how to use it appropriately and responsibly.”

The district declined to make someone available for an interview.

“Artificial intelligence (or augmented intelligence) is only in its infancy and will likely play a major role in the lives of our students in the years to come,” the statement says. “We expect that ChatGPT, along with other emerging technologies, will continue to challenge us to evolve and improve the way we educate our students. It is our responsibility as educators to embrace these challenges and use them as opportunities to better prepare our students for their futures.”

One parent’s thoughts

Amanda Esquivel Salo has discussed the pros and cons of using AI with her two children, a 16-year-old high school junior in Bloomfield Hills and an 18-year-old student at Michigan State University.

“This is actually something we have definitely talked about since the beginning,” Salo said. “My original position was don’t use it. This is not going to contribute to your learning. You should not use it.”

Then months passed, and Salo, an engineering professor at UM-Dearborn, learned more about the use of AI.

“I have evolved. I don’t think you should copy and paste a prompt. None of us should,” Salo said. But, she said, “it’s here. There is nothing we can do. It’s part of our life. The kids all know about it. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend and hope it goes away.”

Salo said her approach is to remind both of her children that they are still learning to be writers, something that can only be done through practice, and that school work is not just about getting a grade and moving on.

“You need to think of this as practice, learning in high school and college,” Salo said. “Trying to convince them they are there to learn. These are skills you don’t have and you need. That is what we have to do right now. They are developing critical thinking. That adds in some onus on parents and educators to really help them understand the value in what they are learning.”

She encourages her children to “play around with AI” by using it for soft skills such as preparing for an interview at a specific company or getting ideas for resume building.

“You always have to take anything it generates with a grain of salt. It can get you started on things,” Salo said.

She expects school district policies will change over time.

“It’s such a big change. In my opinion, it’s so good we are addressing it,” Salo said. “The worst thing you can do is ignore this. It cannot be ignored,” she said.

Training teachers

Educators do realize there are ethical issues to navigate as they race to keep up with technology. In Oakland Schools, a seminar called “Learning in the Age of AI” is being held Sept. 27 for teachers, school administrators and others interested in understanding its applications and ethics in the classroom.

Dwight Levens, chief technology and information officer at Oakland Schools, said teachers have been using AI for years as part of their learning management systems, but no one called it “AI.”

“Some advocate a slow roll (for AI) before it’s implemented into an education environment. But we have a lot of teachers who have understandable concerns around AI. They ask: How will it impact my teaching style? How will it be done ethically so students do not cheat?” Levens said. “It’s here — it’s not on the horizon and coming. We are playing catch-up, and teachers are getting the tools to put the guardrails up to use it properly.”

An August session Oakland Schools held on AI focused on helping teachers lay a foundation for digital literacy skills before moving on to using artificial intelligence with students, said Whiteside, the intermediate district’s technology integration specialist.

“They need to educate students between right and wrong, and that will help combat plagiarism or the idea of copying and pasting. You can’t take AI info and use it as your own,” Whiteside said.

Many teachers are early adopters of AI, she said, and are finding the positives when using it for generating ideas and helping to build lesson plans. Some are hesitant about surveillance and what data is being collected.

“Sessions are geared toward helping them find a comfortable balance,” Whiteside said.

Both Levens and Whiteside said AI has tremendous benefits for students and teachers, allowing them to grow into writing by looking at AI-generated passages.

“AI is here to stay. It truly can be impactful for helping students with reading and passage levels. The goal is not to just consume but to take information and start creating that and making it their own. … I think AI will have a huge impact on education,” Whiteside said.

At Henry Ford II High School, the AI course contains a mix of students, some with previous computer course experience and others with none. Senior Jacqueline Warmack was typing code into her computer trying to get a turtle to draw blocks. It was an exercise in using Python. She had coded before.

“It’s going OK so far. I am struggling with the variables,” said Warmack, 16.

As far as using AI in the classroom, Warmack said it could be used to teach students rather than give them an answer or give them exactly what they want.

“Because it is important for people to develop their skills themselves rather than have someone else develop them for them,” she said. “It can be used for interesting advancements in the future, especially because I have a huge interest in vocal synthesis technology, and there are a lot of programs that use AI voice stuff to help musicians tune their voices.”

David Jarboe, director of instructional Technology and STEAM for the Harrison School District 2 in Colorado Springs, Colo., said school districts need policies or direction from the school board or superintendent on best practices in the classroom and procedures for staff and students.

Jarboe’s district of 13,000 students has set up a committee with community stakeholders — students, teachers, parents, school administrators — to discuss what guardrails should exist.

“The student voice in the room said the best approach for students is to know how to use it productively first — not a list of restrictions, such as ‘don’t’ and threats and such. Tell us how to use the tool with integrity and as thought partners,” Jarboe said.

“ChatGPT and others are just the tip of the iceberg in education,” Jarboe said. “AI will be implemented in operational systems — that will come to school districts soon. It’s a tsunami. The waves are just receding, exposing the bare land.”

Free AI bootcamp

The Mark Cuban Foundation is hosting a free AI Bootcamp in Detroit in October to teach area high school students about AI fundamentals and increase AI literacy. Students do not need prior experience with computer science or programming to attend. More information and an application can be found here. 


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