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Mason City Schools, Iowa, Define AI Uses and Policies

Mason City Community School District has moved on from the early catastrophizing about artificial intelligence to testing various use cases and defining how AI tools should be used by students and staff.

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(TNS) — It's been described by one high school teacher as the "end of high school English."

"The arrival of OpenAI's ChatGPT, a program that generates sophisticated text in response to any prompt you can imagine, may signal the end of writing assignments altogether — and maybe even the end of writing as a gatekeeper, a metric for intelligence, a teachable skill," wrote 12-year English teacher Daniel Herman in the Atlantic in December 2022.

But the news about artificial intelligence software isn't all doom and gloom for Mason City educators and students, who are learning to employ and adapt the emerging technology to the learning environment in a responsible way.

Mason City High School instructional coach Christine Peterson, along with high school history and civics teacher John Lee, have implemented AI technologies both inside the curriculum and in their daily routines.

"I've used it more than my students have," says Lee, "but we talk a lot about it. I see it as the next phase ... but the apprehension is real. It makes cheating even easier, it'll help people who make bad decisions make them quicker and easier. The fact is, it's here."

Sophomore Sofia Ahari can attest that cheating with AI has been widespread, but it's getting harder and harder. She and her fellow student senators saw a problem.

"It's become an issue just as I've entered high school," said Ahari. "The way we've been asked to combat it in the student senate has been just to encourage students to put in the effort, and to do their best. You're not really going to be reaching your full learning potential by using systems like that maliciously."

"We've been lucky," said Peterson. "I feel fortunate and supported in our district to tentatively look at AI and see what it could do. Right from the start, it was 'what can teachers and students use?'"

In leading the professional development of Mason City's teachers, Peterson's job is, in her words, "to support teachers so they can support students." Teachers have a professional development day coming up in April, at which learning how to properly use AI in the classroom will be a major focus.

Peterson said that similar to all new and emerging technology, teachers have rolled out use in the classroom at their own pace and comfort.

Lee said he's undertaken exercises in the classroom where AI software is asked a question. "It'll come up with some generic answer, so I have the kids rebuttal it; find an argument against it. As a social studies teacher, I want students to understand that the technology is fallible, that it's biased and it sometimes can make up its own facts."

Peterson cited Grammarly, which has been used in English classes to not just check grammar but to create writing prompts; and software like Turnitin — an AI repurposed to detect when AI may have been used in writing assignments.

"We stress that AI needs to be applied toward the prompt, not about doing all the work for you," said Peterson. "There are students who really struggle with writing, especially when they're staring at a blank sheet of paper. Having AI trigger those prompts and thoughts is where it can be extremely helpful."

"It's saving me work and time," said Lee. "I use it to generate rubrics and letters, in my real estate business we use it for emails and marketing, to write descriptions of properties. It's a great starting tool, but just like anything you see online, it needs to be fact-checked and be given your own voice."

As reported in the Globe Gazette in August, Mason City school administrators used ChatGPT to select books that would be subject to a ban in the district's libraries in order to comply with new state law prohibiting the "graphic depiction of a sex act." The program selected 19 titles, and, after a review by humans, three of those titles were later reinstated.

The district stated at the time, "lists of commonly challenged books were compiled from several sources to create a master list of books that should be reviewed. The books on this master list were filtered for challenges related to sexual content. Each of these texts was reviewed using AI software to determine if it contains a depiction of a sex act. Based on this review, there are 19 texts that will be removed from our 7-12 school library collections and stored in the Administrative Center while we await further guidance or clarity. We will also have teachers review classroom library collections."

In January and February, schools began adopting policies advised by the Iowa Association of School Boards regarding AI technology, including Mason City.

According to policies adopted at the Jan. 15 meeting, decisions to use AI tools should be focused on the following:

  • Protection of students — Any AI tools used in the district must comply with the requirements to safeguard students from accessing material that is obscene or harmful to minors.

  • Privacy — Personally identifiable information of students will not be shared without necessary written consents.

  • Accessibility — Is the tool available to students of all abilities? If not, what comparable alternatives will be offered to ensure an equitable learning environment for all students?

  • Accuracy — To the extent reasonable, the AI tool should be both reliable and unbiased in its pattern recognition, and data used by the tool should be verified for accuracy.

  • Transparent and interruptible — Student use of AI tools must be able to be monitored by licensed staff to safeguard the appropriateness of the learning experience for the student and monitor for accuracy of the AI tool.

The district's policy also reads that, "Use of AI in research and graded work by students must include proper source citations. Copyright protections must be strictly adhered to. Students who fail to comply with these requirements may face discipline as stated in relevant district policies."

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Bridgette Exman said, "From a district perspective, we see AI as something that we need to embrace, understand, and use as educators and with students in ways that will increase efficiency and offer new opportunities while protecting the most important aspects of learning for our students."

©2024 Globe Gazette, Mason City, Iowa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.