AFSA Members Discuss AI at Department of Education

AFSA members from left to right Peter Michelson, Mark Erlenwein, Gavin Craig and James Allrich. All photos supplied by the members.

AI and your Schools.

Modern artificial intelligence (AI) is universally regarded as revolutionary in its ability to bring about untold harm and untold good.

As leaders of schools, you’re eager to embrace what is good and protect against what is bad about AI. To that end, the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE’s) Office of Technology recently reached out to AFSA to identify school leaders to join roundtables and share their insights on AI, along with superintendents, teachers and directors of educational technology.

For those initial discussions, we introduced the DOE to James Allrich, AFSA Local 146, principal of Argyle Middle School in Montgomery County, Maryland; Gavin Craig, AFSA Local 94, assistant principal of Torrington Middle School, and Peter Michelson, Local 94, principal of Vogel-Wetmore Elementary School, both in Torrington, Connecticut; and Mark Erlenwein, Local 1, principal of Staten Island Technical High School in Staten Island, New York.

These educators have great knowledge of and insight into AI, the computer systems that can perform complex tasks that previously only a human could perform, such as reasoning, making decisions or solving problems. Modern AI has been able to “mash up” work done by human minds and use it in a systematic, statistical way to generate limitless amounts of information. The kind of AI most relevant to teaching and learning is called generative AI, which refers to systems like the recently introduced ChatGPT that can write essays, stories and poems, compose music and even tell jokes.

The questions the DOE asked participants to consider in these early discussions follow below. 

What is one way of Incorporating AI into your role as an educator?

For now, we’ll narrow this question down to ways some can or have incorporated AI into their instructional role. The reaction to AI as an instructional tool was “pretty positive” at his roundtable, Erlenwein remarked, and he added, “There was a wondering and a wonderment.” 

The possibilities for using AI as a teaching tool are so rich they haven’t yet been fully considered. However, Allrich pointed out, “Several K–12 AI tools are currently being created as student supports….For instance, there will soon be a whole set of tools for students who are struggling with algebra in very different ways. So, the kids need and will get different kinds of supports.”

Michelson agreed about the customization of learning. He also anticipates methods for “helping educators discover new ways to explain content,” and spurs to “changing the types of questions we ask” to help move students away from rote memorization toward higher-order thinking.

AI is also helping school leaders to see, as Craig said, “how we can remove barriers so that there can be more facetime with teachers. It can also help us change and improve the way we assess students.”

Erlenwein pointed out a notable pedagogical approach his school takes to high tech: “We take a double-down approach to introducing high-tech innovations alongside low-tech equivalents. This ensures a bridge to understanding and a fail-safe and familiarity on alternative means for sharing and receiving information.” 

So, for example, while teaching students how to communicate with current AI assistance, they also teach them how to build HAM radios and become certified users. They would stay connected if high-tech failed and they fell completely off the grid.

What is one way AI Is providing meaningful support to you?

A degree of administrative liberation through AI is clearly affecting the role of educators in a way they celebrate. 

“I am primarily using generative AI as a productivity and efficiency tool in shortening the time it takes me to do work tasks,” said Erlenwein. “I regularly use Open AI/ChatGPT to write draft emails, letters, speeches, special bell schedules, create rubrics based on New York state standards, condense writings that have character or word limits…and minimize time needed for mundane research tasks.”

Michelson agreed about those economies. He also noted that he can “develop frameworks for finding, collecting and analyzing data and research on specific items….it is also helpful with creating lesson plans.”

What Is one concern or caution you have around the use of AI?

Some districts have developed AI policies, while others think a policy would be premature. New York City Public Schools, for example, prohibit ChatGPT and other AI platforms from being used in schools without special permission. Staten Island Tech is one of three schools that has been allowed to use AI to a limited degree in order to help the district establish next steps and make decisions on which platforms should and should not be turned on in schools.

“Fostering AI literacy is a vital component of the very first steps that school leaders need to take and provide their students, parents, faculty and staff,” said Erlenwein. Professional development to strengthen AI literacy is needed to protect educators from falling prey to malign generative AI systems and tools “that create ‘authentic looking’ work products to unknowing/untrained educator eyes,” he said.

“We have a bit of a Wild West situation,” Craig added. “Before we get heavily into this, we have to have the laws in place to protect us from liability and so on….Remember, some staff can barely turn on a computer, so there’s a big need for PD.”

Michelson shares those concerns, but he added concerns over equitable access to and effective use of AI, embedded social biases and data privacy as well. He also cautions against a superficial use of AI that leads to “loss of deep student learning and motivation.”

Allrich shared concerns that educators “are not just using AI as a way to make our lives easier, but how we are using it (as a way) to increase access, outcomes and success, and close learning gaps.”

Whether school leaders, teachers, superintendents or tech directors, everyone participating in the US DOE roundtables agreed that AI is here to stay. As Allrich put it: “If we don’t get in front of AI, we’re going to be reacting to it.”

Please contact your local’s leaders with your thoughts, questions and suggestions concerning AI and its use in educational settings. We’d love to hear from you.