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A.I. ‘Friend’ for Public School Students Falls Flat

An A.I. platform named Ed was supposed to be an “educational friend” to half a million students in Los Angeles public schools. In typed chats, Ed would direct students toward academic and mental health resources, or tell parents whether their children had attended class that day, and provide their latest test scores. Ed would even be able to detectand respond to emotions such as hostility, happiness and sadness.

Alberto Carvalho, the district’s superintendent, spoke about Ed in bold terms. In an April speech promoting the software, he promised it would “democratize” and “transform education.” In response to skeptics of A.I., he asked, “Why not allow this edutainment approach to capture and captivate their attention, be the motivator?”

One seventh-grade girl who tested the chatbot — personified by a smiling, animated sun — had reported, “I think Ed likes me,” Mr. Carvalho said.

Los Angeles agreed to pay a start-up company, AllHere, up to $6 million to develop Ed, a small part of the district’s $18 billion annual budget. But just two months after Mr. Carvalho’s April presentation at a glittery tech conference, AllHere’s founder and chief executive left her role, and the company furloughed most of its staff. AllHere posted on its website that the furloughs were because of “our current financial position.”

A.I. companies are heavily marketing themselves to schools, which spend tens of billions of dollars annually on technology. But AllHere’s sudden breakdown illustrates some of the risks of investing taxpayer dollars in artificial intelligence, a technology with enormous potential but little track record, especially when it comes to children. There are many complicated issues at play, including privacy of student data and the accuracy of any information offered via chatbots. And A.I. may also run counter to another growing interest for education leaders and parents — reducing children’s screen time.

Natalie Milman, professor of educational technology at George Washington University, said she often advises schools to take a “wait and see” approach to purchasing new technology. While A.I. is worthy of use and testing, she said, she warned about schools “talking nebulously about this glorified tool. It has limitations, and we need to ensure we are being critical of what it can do, and its potential for harm and misinformation.”

AllHere did not respond to interview requests or written questions.

In a statement, Britt Vaughan, a spokesman for the Los Angeles school district, drew a distinction between distracted students being “consumed by phones during the school day” and students using laptops or tablets to interact with the Ed platform, which he said was “intended to provide individualized educational pathways to address student learning.”

Anthony Aguilar, chief of special education for the district, said that despite the collapse of AllHere, a truncated version of Ed remained accessible to families in the district’s 100 “priority” schools, whose students struggle with academics and attendance.

But that software is not a sophisticated, interactive chatbot. It is a website that gathers information from across many other apps the district uses to track assignments, grades and support services. Students using the site can also complete some learning activities on the platform, such as math problems.

The Ed chatbot promoted by Mr. Carvalho was tested with students age 14 and over, but it was taken offline to refine how it answers user questions, Mr. Aguilar said. The goal is for the chatbot to be available in September, a challenge given that AllHere was supposed to provide ongoing technical support and training to school staff, according to its contract with the district. The district said it hoped AllHere would be acquired and that the new owner would continue services.

Mr. Aguilar said the idea for the software had originated with the district, as part of Mr. Carvalho’s plan to help students recover from the academic and emotional effects of the pandemic.

AllHere had won a competitive bidding process to build it, Mr. Aguilar said.

But the project represented a vast and unwieldy challenge for the start-up, which was best known as a provider of automated text messages from schools to families.

AllHere had attracted $12 million in venture capital funding, according to Crunchbase. Its founder and chief executive, Joanna Smith-Griffin, now 33, was featured in Forbes, CBS and other media outlets telling a compelling story. As a former educator whose own students were often absent, she said, she founded AllHere in 2016 to help solve the problem.

Automated text messaging seemed to meet the moment when the Covid-19 pandemic began, and chronic absenteeism became a national crisis. In the spring of 2020, AllHere acquired technology developed by Peter Bergman, an economist and education technology expert. It enabled schools to send “nudges” to parents via text messages about attendance, missing assignments, grades and other issues.

Ms. Smith-Griffin often spoke about founding AllHere at the Harvard Innovation Labs, a university program to support student entrepreneurs. According to Matt Segneri, the labs’ executive director, Ms. Smith-Griffin’s affiliation with the program occurred while she was an undergraduate and then graduate student at the Harvard Extension School.

Like many small start-ups, the company shifted its mission over time. Last year, AllHere began talking more about an “A.I.-powered intuitive chatbot.” AllHere would provide artificial intelligence to schools while also keeping a “human in the loop,” the company said, meaning human moderators would oversee the A.I. to ensure safety and security — a potentially expensive, labor-intensive proposition.

Stephen Aguilar, a professor of education at the University of Southern California — who is not related to Mr. Aguilar of Los Angeles schools — said it was “a fairly common problem” for ambitious school tech efforts to fail. He formerly worked as a developer of educational software, including some projects that could not be delivered as promised.

“Districts have a lot of complex needs and a lot of safety concerns,” he said. “But they often lack the technical expertise to really vet what they are buying.”

The foray into A.I. is not the first time Los Angeles has made a big bet on education technology, with questionable returns. Beginning in 2013, under a previous superintendent, the district spent tens of millions of dollars buying iPads preloaded with curriculum materials, but the effort was marred by security concerns and technical mishaps.

In Mr. Carvalho’s April speech, at a conference hosted by Arizona State University and GSV Ventures, a venture capital firm, he said the Ed chatbot would have access to student data on test scores, mental health, physical health and family socioeconomic status.

Ms. Smith-Griffin joined him onstage to explain that student data would live in “a walled garden” accessible only within “the Ed ecosystem.”

Ms. Smith-Griffin did not respond to requests for an interview. Mr. Vaughan of Los Angeles schools said the district would protect data privacy and security on the platform “regardless of what happens to AllHere as a company.”

In April, AllHere said it was serving “9,100 schools across 36 states.” According to reporting from The74, an education news site, some of AllHere’s other school district contracts, in the five-figure range, were tiny compared with its deal with Los Angeles, which had already netted the company over $2 million.

Some customers beyond Los Angeles have been told that the company’s services are essentially defunct.

Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland learned from AllHere on June 18 that “effective immediately” the start-up would no longer be able to provide its text messaging service, a district spokeswoman said, because of “unforeseen financial circumstances.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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