Illinois Schools: Trying to Maximize on AI Promise Without Falling Prey to its Pitfalls
The meteoric rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and the tools it has created, like ChatGPT, has captivated the attention of the country and created a new set of possible benefits, as well as a slew of potential pitfalls for education in America.
The meteoric rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and the tools it has created, like ChatGPT, has captivated the attention of the country and created a new set of possible benefits, as well as a slew of potential pitfalls for education in America. The speed with which the technology hit the scene, coupled by the swift escalation and evolution of its applications, is both fascinating and frightful. As of May 2023, twelve states – in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Milwaukee – banned ChatGPT and similar tools in some school districts. Illinois has not outlawed the technology; instead, it’s moving cautiously forward, trying to glean the best of what the technology can offer in the classroom, while determining the most effective counter-measures to address some of its shortcomings.
What is AI?
The Illinois Principals Association (IPA) has created a draft of a student handbook policy regarding the Use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), defining it as “intelligence demonstrated by computers, as opposed to human intelligence.” It provides examples of AI technology such as “ChatGPT and other chatbots and large language models.” The policy asserts that AI is not a substitute for schoolwork that requires “original thought,” and that using AI to “take tests, complete assignments, create multimedia projects, write papers, or complete schoolwork without permission of a teacher or administrator is strictly prohibited,” and “constitutes cheating or plagiarism.”
“We are at the tip of the iceberg with this,” says Brian D. Schwartz, Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel of the Illinois Principals Association. “And, as AI develops, I think school districts may change their approach.” Schwartz worked on developing the AI student handbook policy because, “Just banning AI outright is an over-reaction,” and to ensure it can be used in certain settings to maximize learning.
In this way, Illinois is following the approach encouraged at the federal level. This summer, the US Department of Education issued a new policy report summarizing the opportunities and risks for AI in teaching, learning and assessment. This report supports a collaborative approach, pointing to, “the clear need for sharing knowledge, engaging educators and communities, and refining technology plans and policies for AI use in education.”
What Could it Look Like in the Classroom?
“We are at the very beginning of it,” says Jayne Willard, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction at Naperville Community Unit School District #203. “We realized AI isn’t going away, the children are aware of it, and as we learned more about it, we decided we could use this in the classroom and teach the children how to be good stewards of it at the same time.”
Naperville #203 is a large suburban school district, serving over 16,000 students, but at this time, it is using AI only for students in 8th grade through high school. “We wanted to be strategic about it and use it in a positive way to engage students,” Willard points out. So, the district opened it up for these older students and secured parent understanding and permission.
“When you think about it, we all use AI to some degree everyday. Anyone who asks Alexa for the time, or let their text app finish the sentence they were typing, or searches with Google is using a form of AI,” Willard says. And so, after attending an administration innovation summit in January, learning more and collaborating with colleagues about the possibilities, they decided to embrace and integrate it.
Willard explained how a high school English class used AI in a writing lesson. After reading Shakespeare’s play, McBeth, the students were instructed to use AI search terms to compose a paper, which they then evaluated. This was an opportunity for the students to use the technology under supervision, review and analyze what it produced (which was often not terribly good). The experience helped better inform their understanding of the material they read, and taught the students to be more critical consumers of what technology offers. This approach provides two learning opportunities - highlighting the ways AI can provide incomplete or inaccurate information and, by comparing this content to scholarly content, the students can build their own skills even further and create their own critically thought-out viewpoints.
And, as expected with quickly evolving technology, there are constantly developing tools that can be paired with AI to make it more effective. For example, several schools employ apps like TurnItIn, which is an AI writing detection technology that can help distinguish between AI and human-written text and is specialized for student writing. These can often be used seamlessly together to maximize the assistance that AI can provide, without replacing original student work.
Moreover, in a special education classroom, Naperville educators have found some powerful ways to use AI technology. Recently, as part of a Superhero project, the special education students used AI apps to suggest ideas (based on their input and preferences) to create their own unique Superhero, as well as a flier to promote their Superhero movie, their own background music, and other elements – all of which they presented in a movie-premiere setting. It turned out to be an inspired lesson that generated a lot of enthusiasm from the students. This use in a special setting is something that the IPA’s AI policy also recognizes and affirms as a potential benefit, and it includes wording that authorizes AI use in Individualized Education Programs (IEP).
Setting Clear Expectations
Even with these early positives, Naperville #203 is proceeding cautiously. They are engaging teachers with modules on best uses and practices, encouraging participation at conferences to learn more, and have even had student panels weighing in on their experiences with AI and learning. They understand that AI may be here to stay, but they want to continually learn about it as it evolves. “The kids know about it and are using it and so we wanted to ensure they did so responsibly to best prepare them for their future,” Willard concludes.
In some ways, looking back at the use of other novel technologies that are now commonplace in the classroom can be helpful for understanding today’s dynamics. Take the trusty calculator, which many decried as a tool that would undo students’ mathematical understanding. Today, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that using calculators to ascertain basic calculations can lead to deeper engagement with challenging math concepts and a fuller understanding of higher level operations. While AI is far more complex and its uses may have far-reaching implications, it is likely here to stay. It will transform how students learn, how they are taught, and eventually how we all work. And many schools in Illinois are betting that those who learn to understand AI and use it responsibility are in a good position to develop skills that will support them through their academic journeys, their future careers, and beyond.
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