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AI Policies Should Leave Room for Teachers and Students to Mess Up, Superintendents Say

When school districts craft or update their policies on the use of artificial intelligence, they should set clear expectations but leave room for students and teachers to make mistakes, according to superintendents who have been leading their schools through establishing guidelines around the use of the powerful technology.

AI has taken the education community by storm in recent years, particularly since ChatGPT came on the scene a little over a year ago, able to whip up entire essays in seconds, alter and create images, and solve complex math problems.

Still, for all the talk about AI, most districts are still trying to figure out the technology’s implications for plagiarism and data privacy, and develop guidelines for its ethical use.

But district leaders who have taken the plunge and begun to grapple with these challenges said it’s important to be clear about expectations, particularly for staff members so they have some license to experiment within reasonable boundaries.

Most often, because AI is rapidly evolving and changing and to allow for this experimentation, the expectations the district leaders have set center on what not to do, rather than what to do, district leaders said recently in a panel discussion at the National Conference on Education sponsored by AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

“The biggest feedback we’ve gotten is that our teachers want to know what’s OK or what’s not OK, not because they’re afraid of it, but because they want to make sure they don’t do something wrong,” said Mary Catherine Reljac, superintendent of the Fox Chapel Area school district in Pennsylvania.

The big no-no’s, Reljac said, include inputting students’ or colleagues’ personal information, or any specific identifiable information about the school district, in an AI tool. Staff members are also advised against downloading or using simply any available tool—there’s a specific process the district’s technology department uses to vet products first, she said.

From there, individual teachers should also have classroom-level policies that are molded to fit the subjects and content they teach, because AI can be used differently in different scenarios, said Patrick Gittisriboongul, assistant superintendent of technology and innovation in Lynwood, Calif.

“It’s important for every teacher, every subject area, every content area, every grade level to look at AI and start really anticipating what kinds of questions are going to come up from students,” he said. “It’s a matter of time that students and staff are going to be using the tool on a daily basis, if they’re not already.”

But district leaders need to keep an open mind, Reljac added, and understand that there is so much still in flux when it comes to AI.

“As the superintendent, I’ve given people permission to mess this up, and we’ve tried to reassure people that if you have good intentions and you’re taking good precautions, if what you’re doing doesn’t go well, let’s just talk about it and use it as a learning experience, instead of a punitive thing,” she said. “That has helped to relieve some of the anxiety people have.”

Along with training and flexibility, it’s important that districts planning to allow and integrate AI into their classrooms consider what to do if a student’s parents opt them out of using the technology, the district leaders said.

It’s likely there will be some students in that situation, said Kelly May-Vollmar, superintendent of the Desert Sands school district in La Quinta, Calif.

She recalled when Chromebooks, now a staple in many American classrooms, first gained traction and some parents pushed back.

Communication is key in those situations, she said, encouraging superintendents, principals, and technology leaders to have individual conversations with parents to discuss their concerns. Often, they’ll change their minds afterward, she said.

But if they don’t, Reljac said, districts must find a way to allow students who don’t have access to AI to master the same standards and skills as their peers. That’s not a new concept—parents can opt their children out of any course content in her district, she said.

“When that happens, our educators have to create a different way for the students to move forward, and we’re using the exact same approach here,” Reljac said. “It’s such a small number, but it’s an important number.”

May-Vollmar added: “Technology is a tool. You have learning objectives and you decided on outcomes you wanted for students, which you can accomplish in 15 million different ways. Using generative AI is a way to do that. It’s not the only way.”

Regardless, students who want to use the technology and have their parents’ OK should have equal access, she said. That means district leaders have to ensure teachers across the district feel comfortable using AI and don’t shy away because it’s unknown, she said.

To encourage teachers who are more hesitant about the technology to test it out, May-Vollmar said her district has created “AI playgrounds,” which allow educators to receive some instruction about AI and test it out in a low-stakes environment intended to be fun and encourage exploration.

There are stations with different focuses—maybe a specific tool or function—and teachers rotate through, May-Vollmar said.

“That kind of experience created a lot of momentum and encouraged our people who have been hesitant to use technology,” she said.

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