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AI Training Sparks Interest Among Johnstown, Pa., Teachers

Mark DiMauro, a University of Pittsburgh assistant professor, gave the example of using AI to simulate ancient philosophers holding a conversation, tutor students on Greek playwrights, and provide curriculum updates.

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(TNS) — After listening on Friday to a talk about the practicality and possible drawbacks of using artificial intelligence in the classroom, Greater Johnstown teacher Ian Cunningham said he may implement the tools in his lessons.

"I think it's useful," he said.

Cunningham envisioned a time when his students could use AI to examine their own prompting skills and discuss classwork, while he may make use of the technology to help create assignments.

The English-as-a-second-language teacher was one of dozens of Greater Johnstown instructors who met at the district's middle school to hear from Mark DiMauro, a University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown assistant professor of digital humanities who specializes in AI studies.

"It's definitely one of the most interesting in-service trainings we've had in the past few years," Cunningham said.

DiMauro talked about the history of artificial intelligence, the most popular applications, how the technology works and possible pitfalls of student use.

"You've been exposed to artificial intelligence for a long time," he told the crowd, providing examples such as word suggestions while texting and websites asking users to prove they are human.

He explained that AI in this form is not a thinking, emoting entity — that's "hard AI" and likely won't ever exist, he said — but a large-scale equation that uses inputed data to respond.

DiMauro also stressed that the technology is not infallible. One of the largest drawbacks, he said, is that some students who do use it don't check their work to make sure it's correct.

However, the professor said he "stringently argues in favor of AI use in classrooms."

In his opinion, the tools have a variety of applications that can benefit education in the long term.

Using one of the most popular artificial intelligence tools — ChatGPT, a generative text model developed by OpenAI — DiMauro demonstrated how he has used AI to have "ancient philosophers" hold a conversation, tutor students on Greek playwrights, and provide curriculum updates.

One of the questions from the audience was about the accuracy of generative text models. DiMauro explained that ChatGPT scours the internet for information to create responses to users' questions. The more direct and specific the question, especially about where to get information from, the better and more accurate the answer.

DiMauro then asked the audience for a question to input. Cunningham suggested having the bot create discussion questions for the book "Touching Spirit Bear," which he and his students are reading.

Overall, Cunningham said, he thought the responses provided were "very good."

He said that DiMauro's view on the subject of artificial intelligence was refreshing.

Gena Myers, an Earth and environmental sciences and astronomy teacher at Greater Johnstown, agreed.

"I think he's showing a different outlook for where teaching is going," she said, adding that DiMauro does a good job explaining the technology.

Myers noted that her interest was piqued at the idea that AI could be used for creating websites, especially in regard to the school store at the high school. If she could use the tool to create an online store for Greater Johnstown students to purchase gear, that would be great, she said.

She was also interested in learning more about how the technology could be used to adapt curriculum.

Amy Arcurio, district superintendent, said the Greater Johnstown educators were not there on Friday to determine the direction in which the schools will go regarding AI, but to learn and lead the way on the subject.

The professional development lesson was one of two planned that will lead to a teacher-led committee on artificial intelligence for the district.

"AI — it's everywhere and it's all around us," Arcurio said.

©2024 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.