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AI is poised to transform schools — and life

Image created by Izea.com using the prompt “news article illustration of AI use in schools.”
Image created by Izea.com using the prompt “news article illustration of AI use in schools.”

This story originally appeared in the Education newsletter, out Mondays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

When I was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer in the 1990s, we wrote a slew of stories about the information superhighway (aka the internet) — along with covering the emerging trend of people buying computers for their homes.

Reporting on the prospects for using artificial intelligence in schools last week reminded me of that time. Once again, many of us are trying to figure out something likely to upend education and life in general.

I’ve read articles about AI (The New Yorker has some excellent ones), checked out some AI art on Instagram and joked nervously with colleagues about cash-strapped media companies turning to robot reporters. But until I heard Cabarrus County Schools’ Chief Technology Officer Ben Allred rattle off all the ways he’s using AI on the job, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might need to dive in.

Asking ChatGPT to help write an article about AI has already gone from clever to cliché, but I did need something to illustrate my digital story. So I Googled image-generating AI. My first click landed me on a site that said it was free but prompted me to sign up for a paid monthly subscription before I could proceed. Next, I landed on FormAI at Izea.com, which let me try it at no cost. I typed in “news article illustration of AI use in schools” and got four images, including the one at the top of this page and the adorable robot I used for the digital article.

The state’s new AI guidebook for schools enlightened me about refining a prompt to get better results. So I tried “student using artificial intelligence,” and threw in “North Carolina” out of curiosity. Four new images (below) all focused on images of a human face, two of them recognizably Black males. The color palate included more blue than the first batch, but beyond that I couldn’t see that the location made any difference.

Four images created by Izea.com using the prompt “student using artificial intelligence North Carolina.”
Four images created by Izea.com using the prompt “student using artificial intelligence North Carolina.”

I still had some free credits left, so I tried “artificial intelligence in schools” and clicked the “purple pill / get weird” option. The results included a snail in a picture frame and two huge, funky work boots dominating a Van Gogh-style landscape. Fun, but not usable.

Learning while using AI

I was getting a taste of what officials hope students will experience: Learning while using AI. For instance: check the terms of any site you use and never enter personal information (in my case, a credit card for the site that wanted payment).

And I quickly launched a discussion with my editors on the ethics of using an AI-generated illustration. We agreed it would be clearly attributed and relevant to the piece, so it got the green light. Some people argue that all AI art exploits the work of human artists without compensation, and I get that (my husband is a retired graphic artist). But WFAE doesn’t have a freelance budget or staff to do illustrations, so at least we didn’t steal a job from a real artist.

This piece also prompted talk about the need for guidelines on how WFAE will use AI — and a recognition that this can no longer be a back-burner task. We’ve been assured that the station won’t replace reporters, but could bots take over some routine chores to free staff time?

While we talked on Zoom, senior news editor Ely Portillo typed a prompt into ChatGPT: “Write about the challenges, harms and potential benefits of using AI in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.” By the time the meeting ended, he had Slacked me an essay that began like this:

In the heart of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a quiet educational revolution is taking place as schools embrace the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to transform the learning experience for students. This technological leap promises a host of benefits, but it also raises concerns about potential pitfalls. … Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) have embarked on an ambitious journey to integrate AI into various aspects of education. From personalized learning platforms to AI-driven tutoring programs, the district is leveraging cutting-edge technology to enhance the educational journey of its students.

It read like something CMS might send out, but it was completely bogus. In fact, CMS has so far blocked access to AI from district devices. Here’s what Chief Technology Officer Candace Salmon-Hosey sent in response to my query about the state’s AI guidelines:

We know that AI has a lot to offer.  As with any new resource, we intend to be both cautious and courageous as we move forward.  Members of the CMS Technology Team have met with members of the CMS Strategy and Innovation team to plan for the start of a small working group around AI for CMS.  We are engaging in meetings with national organizations with which we collaborate to learn more about early thoughts and learnings about its possible use to support and accelerate student learning.  One of the very first things we have learned is that the rate of the growth of AI is so fast that things change every single day.  Our team is grateful for the guidance from NCDPI and is excited to learn and continue to assess our readiness as the tools for its effective use in student learning and innovation become even more refined, safe and available.

And therein lies another lesson for students: AI can generate convincing fiction. It’s not just doing research but concocting new material. So students trying to figure out how CMS is handling AI might have asked for guidance on resources and questions to explore, but they shouldn’t trust ChatGPT to write an essay for them.

Ubiquitous in less than two years?

It’s amusing to think back on our wide-eyed reporting on technology that we barely think about now. The internet has delivered benefits and hazards beyond what most of us could have imagined. The same is likely to be true of AI.

Allred, the Cabarrus County tech officer, says all breakthroughs go through a cycle, from “Oh no!” to “This is neat” to ubiquitous. He suspects we’re 12 to 18 months from ubiquitous AI.

If he’s right, most of us have a lot of learning to do. Unless, of course, we’re just taking orders from our robot overlords by then.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.