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What Worries District Tech Leaders Most About AI? (It’s Not About Teaching)

Teachers are using artificial intelligence in all kinds of ways to help them do their jobs. But that expanding use has school district tech leaders worried that it could prompt more cyberattacks against schools, concludes a new report.

The Consortium for School Networking’s annual State of EdTech District Leadership report, released April 30, recognizes that AI has significant potential to improve education, but at the same time it poses huge cybersecurity risks for schools.

Cybersecurity continues to rank as district technology leaders’ top priority, especially as attacks increasingly originate from all the tech tools schools use for teaching, learning, and daily operations. And many of those tools now include AI features.

Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of district tech leaders are “very” or “extremely” concerned that the emerging technology will enable new forms of cyberattacks, according to the report, which surveyed 981 district tech leaders between Jan. 10 and Feb. 29.

Diane Doersch, the CoSN board chair and the senior director of information technology for Digital Promise, said district tech leaders are asking: “How could AI be used by people with nefarious motives to even create more damage?”

“We all want to make sure that generative AI is used in the right way, but for every good, it seems like there are evils out there,” Doersch said. “So the way we’re thinking about leveraging it for the good, I’m sure someone else is thinking: ‘How can we use this for bad?’”

About half (49 percent) of district tech leaders are also “very” or “extremely” concerned about the lack of teacher training for integrating AI into instruction, the report found.

The EdWeek Research Center has found that a majority of teachers haven’t received any training on generative AI. Teacher training is important, not just so they can use it responsibly in their work, but also so they can help model that use for students, according to experts.

New forms of cyberbullying, the spread of false information, and threats to student data privacy round out the top five concerns, the report found.

At the other end of the spectrum, district tech leaders are not at all concerned that AI will replace teachers, lead to overall job loss, or surpass humans.

Most districts don’t have an AI use policy

When it comes to having a defined approach to how staff and students can use generative AI, 4 in 10 district tech leaders said they do not currently have a defined approach, according to the report. But building an AI strategy is one of district tech leaders’ top five priorities.

More than half (54 percent) of district tech leaders said their district doesn’t have an existing AI use policy, and almost one-third (31 percent) of districts are fitting AI use within their current policies around tech use, the report found.

Still, generative AI has made it more urgent for districts to reassess the tech tools they’re using, Doersch said.

“Districts have a lot of learning tools and apps that they have looked at and approved for the staff and students to use,” she said. “But now, it seems every existing application needs another review, because they’re adding AI into it. So it’s causing leaders to have to kind of go backwards and reassess.”

It’s not easy for districts to address these AI-related concerns, district tech leaders say, especially as they work through budget constraints and staffing shortages.

“We can’t pause AI to get ready for it,” said Sarah Radcliffe, the CoSN board secretary and the director of future-ready learning for the Altoona school district in Wisconsin. “It’s really not about preparing for it, because it’s here. It’s about working with it and continuing to better the systems that you have in place to allow AI for use for productivity and for learning, while at the same time protecting student information, protecting your cybersecurity. All of those things are very challenging.”

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