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‘Just slow it all down’: School leaders want guidance on AI, new research finds

Courtesy of Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74/Stock

This piece was originally published in The 74.

New generative artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, which can mimic human writing and generate images from simple user prompts, are poised to disrupt K-12 education.

As school and district administrators grapple with these rapid advances, they crave guidance on how to incorporate AI tools into teaching and learning, new research shows. 

In focus groups conducted in August by the Center on Reinventing Public Education with colleagues at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, 18 superintendents, principals and senior administrators who collectively oversee nearly 70 schools in five states expressed cautious optimism about AI’s potential to enhance teaching and learning. 

But few are exploring how to provide AI training to staff. And many bemoaned having to navigate another new and major disruption to schooling, according to the focus group responses.

“We just got through this COVID hybrid remote learning,” one leader said. “Now I have to do AI?”

In general, the participants said they wanted more guidance from states, universities and even the industry on how to incorporate generative AI and establish policies to ensure staff and students use the tools ethically and responsibly. At the time the focus groups were conducted, no state departments of education had offered any guidance to help districts navigate the new landscape, CRPE research shows. The federal Department of Education’s technology office says it’s working to develop policies and support for AI-enabled education technology. And a new group of experts recently released an “AI guidance for schools” toolkit.

That attention at the national level reinforces some of the concerns that administrators voiced: that AI equity and access issues could open a new chasm in the digital divide. One high school leader who had collaborated with a student advisory board said some students didn’t understand ChatGPT at all, while others were highly knowledgeable and were already using paid versions. 

“The technology is bound to grow exponentially as more students become familiar with it,” the participant said — but it also raises troubling issues. “Who’s going to have access to what, and what are our responsibilities as a school district to provide access?”

Administrators’ perspectives on AI are important because they set the tone for learning priorities. As AI begins to disrupt conventional schooling habits and practices, their willingness to adapt, develop guidelines and encourage exploration has implications for student and teacher success.

Even in the short time that ChatGPT has been available to the public, districts nationwide have adopted divergent stances on its use (largely because of concerns about cheating), previous CRPE research found. Some districts quickly shifted from initially banning the technology to cautiously allowing it.

Despite the concerns over the pace of change, administrators who participated in the focus groups expressed a relatively high level of excitement about AI’s potential advantages and relatively little concern about issues such as student safety and data privacy. 

Some called for guidance from the tech industry.

“If you’re one of those people who creates this fantastic tool, then you need to also help educate around it,” one said.

Others hoped higher education would uncover best uses for AI and allow those tips to trickle down to the K-12 level. When administrators were asked what they would do to AI developments if they had a magic wand, one leader said: “Can we just slow it all down?”

Most administrators said they weren’t ready to create policies that specified appropriate uses for generative AI. 

“I refuse to do it because I don’t know what to put in it,” one leader said. 

Many believe their current plagiarism policies are sufficient to deal with today’s most salient concern over AI: student cheating.

Some hesitation is understandable given that educators are frequently pressured to adopt new technology. However, AI is not a fad, and it’s not going away anytime soon. These tools are rapidly being integrated into everyday life and cannot be banned or ignored.

Some education leaders said they’ve formed teacher or student advisory groups to continue exploring AI. Others are setting aside discussion time at staff meetings. Some said they’re listening to early adopters, such as technology directors or enthusiastic teachers. But none of the leaders said they are urging all staff to use the tools. And none had mapped out plans for staff training.

Helping students prepare to use AI in their professional and personal lives means schools must start investing in — and encouraging broader understanding of — AI technology among teachers and staff. State departments of education need to accelerate work in this area so they can help guide districts. Teachers need dedicated work time to play with the tools. 

And perhaps students who are adept at AI should be encouraged to share what they’re learning with adults.

“I do have a more formal workshop ready to go when that time is right,” one technology director said. “We are just stepping in slowly.”

This piece is a summary of the below article: 

Dunnigan, J., Henriksen, D., Mishra, P., & Lake, R. (2023). “Can we just Please Slow it all Down?” School Leaders Take on ChatGPT. TechTrends. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-023-00914-1

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