‘AI is here.’ Ypsilanti schools weigh integrity, ethics of new technology


YPSILANTI, MI — As the use of artificial intelligence becomes more and more common, Ypsilanti Community Schools is working to keep up with the technology.

With so much still unclear about the full capabilities of AI, Superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross said she believes it’s critical for schools to balance the usefulness of the new technology with maintaining academic integrity.

“We’ve really taken the stance that artificial intelligence is here, and so we need to teach integrity and the ethical considerations that teachers must think about,” Zachery-Ross said. “We understand that it’s going to be artificial intelligence and human intelligence interacting together from here on out.”

YCS has been slowly rolling out the implementation of AI-powered tools since last summer. One way Zachary-Ross sees AI being used is to assist students in developing writing skills.

By using chatbots like ChatGPT — an artificial intelligence developed by OpenAI that serves as a language model generating human-like text in a conversational style — YCS can develop prompts and help students brainstorm ideas for writing exercises, Zachary-Ross said.

One way teachers can stem potential misuse of AI is requiring students to complete written assignments in the classroom — either by writing on paper or typing in a monitored Google document — so potential cheating would be easier to catch, Zachary-Ross said.

“(Students can) use it for analysis, synthesis and improving their work — not to generate the work for them,” Zachary-Ross said.

In addition to potentially offering new opportunities to personalize student learning, AI could ease some classroom management burdens, such as large-scale data analysis and quickly organizing lesson plans, Zachary-Ross said.

YCS’ English Learner Department has been at the frontline of AI implementation in the district. The technology can be used to quickly generate instructional materials in several different languages, said teacher Connor Laporte.

“We primarily use AI tools to create materials for students,” Laporte said. “We’ve done a little bit of having students use it as well, but we’re trying to be a little bit slower in talking about how we are rolling that out. You have to be pretty discerning to use (AI).”

Serving the roughly 30% of YCS students who can speak a language other than English, the English Learner Department has found multiple ways to bring AI into the classroom, including helping teachers develop multilingual explanations of core concepts discussed in the curriculum — and save time doing it.

“A lot of that time saving allows us to focus more on giving that important feedback that allows students to grow an be aware of their progress and their learning,” Laporte said.

Laporte uses an example of a Spanish-speaking intern who improved a vocabulary test by double-checking the translations and using ChatGPT to add more vocabulary words and exercises. Another intern then used ChatGPT to make a French version of the same worksheet.

While convenient, artificial intelligence is not infallible, and native speaking staff members are careful to double-check the work produced through AI tools, Laporte said.

The future is now

AI engines like Google Bard can be used to create bespoken materials for individual students, effectively tailoring classwork for students based on their language proficiency.

AI-generated voice programs also give more options for students to hear multiple dialects of a chosen language. Students will get a chance to differentiate Tanzanian and Ugandan Swahili — something the monotone, robot-like voice of Google Translate doesn’t offer, Laporte said.

“We are planning on rolling it out a little more widely,” Laporte said. “We’re still cautious — last year I feel like everyone was terrified of AI, so we don’t want to just jump right into it.”

Since the beginning of 2023, fifth-grade teacher Melanie Eccles has been implementing the Roadmaps digital education platform to digitally organize her lesson plans.

Developed by the University of Michigan College of Engineering’s Center for Digital Curricula, Roadmaps allows Eccles to monitor students complete work in the same program. The platform uses AI-technology to automate the process of sharing information amongst students and other teachers.

“(Roadmaps) has helped me both incorporate digital learning into the students’ curriculum and train them on how to use the curriculum in a way that isn’t just browsing the internet,” Eccles said.

Sydney Fortson, an 11-year-old student of Eccles’ social studies class, likes that the collaboration-based Roadmaps allows her to edit their own work and not just rely on a teacher.

“I like how everything is in one place (with Roadmaps),” Sydney said. “I wish there were a few less tabs, but I like how it gives me choices on how I can learn.”

‘Balance is critical’

Whether or not students will use AI in their education is not a question of if, but when, Zachary-Ross said. Because of this, YCS is changing how teachers approach crafting their assignments in the first place.

“Teachers are asking students to do more rigorous tasks — things that do require more critical thinking and analysis,” Zachary-Ross said. “When we get to that level, that’s something that a bot can’t contribute to.”

YCS staff are preparing for a future in which methods like group projects, hands-on assignments and asking students to explain concepts verbally are the norm in lieu of relying on written assignments to showcase student aptitude.

“(Students) are having formative instruction where they’re growing and not just getting a final paper or final, simple assignment that can be put into an AI bot,” Zachary-Ross said. “We have to move away from that, because that’s not higher-level thinking anyway. We really want to get students to analyze and be critical workers.”

Though her district is open to the AI-powered future, Zachary-Ross said it will be important to stay careful and cautious when dealing with the technology, and for school districts to learn and grow from each other in order to balance utility with integrity.

“Students need to understand that there have to be ethical considerations,” Zachary-Ross said. ”That balance is critical for any district or educator thinking about adopting generative AI into their work.”

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