FCPS considers generating guidelines for use of ‘artificial intelligence’

OpenAI’s ChatGPT on a laptop screen (via Rolf van Root on Unsplash)

With ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence-based tools becoming increasingly mainstream, Fairfax County Public Schools officials have started discussing potential guidelines to govern how the technology is used in the classroom.

The Fairfax County School Board broached the topic at work session forum on Nov. 28, led by outgoing board chair and Dranesville District representative Elaine Tholen and Sully District representative Stella Pekarsky.

While the discussion wasn’t recorded, Tholen says the school board felt it was a way to make the public aware that FCPS is developing a strategy for how it will handle AI, which is getting integrated into industries from public safety and health care to filmmaking.

“The School Board and FCPS recognizes that a comprehensive AI strategy is crucial for preparing students and educators for the future, enhancing the learning experience, and ensuring the school division remains competitive and adaptive in the rapidly evolving educational landscape,” Tholen said.

AI has been utilized for educational purposes for years, as apps like Duolingo and iNaturalist rely on algorithms that allow them to process data, identify patterns and adapt. But the recent advent of generative AI — which can create text, images and sound based on that data, with OpenAI’s ChatGPT and DALL-E as two high-profile examples — has raised new practical, legal and ethical questions.

In response to fears that students will use AI to cheat or do their homework, New York City Public Schools, Los Angeles Unified and other school districts have banned ChatGPT from their networks, while elsewhere, teachers suggest it could be a useful tool if handled responsibly.

The Highlander, McLean High School’s student newspaper, found that many students have at least experimented with AI, with 40% of 223 surveyed students admitting to utilizing it for at least one school assignment.

Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President David Walrod says the union’s members haven’t raised a lot of concerns about students using ChatGPT, but he’s aware that there are concerns “from teachers more generally across the country.”

“I do think it will require a change to some teaching practices, but I also see potential for positive change,” he told FFXnow.

In addition to using tools that can identify AI, similar to ones used to detect plagiarism, teachers may have to adjust what kinds of assignments they ask students to do at home versus in school, Walrod says. They could also put more emphasis on tasks that require students to show their work, such as an outline, graphic organizer or even a handwritten first draft for an essay.

While the technology presents challenges, it could help teachers by reducing or streamlining their workload. As examples, Walrod shared a hypothetical math lesson plan and discussion questions on the children’s novel “Bud, Not Buddy” generated by ChatGPT, noting that they could serve as “an effective starting point.”

“This doesn’t do all the work for me; I still need to generate examples, I need to find the materials to distribute, etc,” Walrod said by email regarding the math lesson plan. “But it does give me a general outline to follow and allows me to focus on preparing and creating the materials.”

According to the Highlander, some administrators in FCPS are also deploying AI tools “on a consistent basis,” using ChatGPT to help them write newsletters and other messages to the community, for instance. The school system approved ChatGPT and fellow chatbot Google Bard for staff use this year and has started providing training, the McLean High School students reported.

However, a clear framework is still needed to create boundaries and consistency around how FCPS students and employees use generative AI, which can produce results of questionable quality and accuracy and too often regurgitate biases from their underlying data.

According to Tholen, issues that future policies could address include:

  • Ethical uses
  • Cybersecurity and data privacy safeguards
  • Equity and inclusion, including monitoring for any unintended consequences
  • Professional development
  • Accessibility
  • Transparency around when and how the technology is used
  • Guidelines for integrating AI into the curriculum

FCPS could also collaborate with outside experts, universities and other partners to support AI education and implementation.

Tholen says she’s “excited” to start that “groundbreaking work” after the school board voted earlier this year to contract the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) for a Lighthouse School pilot program, which will test “best practices for bringing innovation to learning.” About $500,000 for the pilot was included in the current fiscal year 2024 budget.

“Setting a solid foundation for future work in AI and Quantum will help us adapt as technologies continue to evolve,” Tholen said. “We must prepare our students for the future of work and society and position our school district as forward thinking and committed to providing a modern, relevant education.”

Walrod says he’s “very curious” to learn about FCPS’ plans for ensuring AI is used safely and effectively by students and teachers, noting that any policy should recognize that technology isn’t a substitute for people.

“Tools like AI cannot replace the human element, either in teaching or elsewhere in the workforce,” Walrod said. “Like any tool, AI has the potential to allow work to be done more effectively, but it still requires a skilled professional to oversee and fine tune it.”

Photo via Rolf van Root on Unsplash

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