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Michigan Nonprofit Creates Research Lab to Study AI for K-12

The 25-year-old education nonprofit Michigan Virtual is launching a multipronged research effort to study use cases, policy proposals, ethics and back-end logistics for artificial intelligence in education.

Someone writing "A.I." in white chalk on a black chalkboard.
The digital learning nonprofit Michigan Virtual is building an artificial intelligence research program to study practical and ethical uses and best practices for the technology in K-12 classrooms.

As described in a recent news release, the new AI "laboratory" will be part of the nonprofit's Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI), which studies the effectiveness of online and hybrid learning models and provides training, and in some cases teachers, to support online learning programs at Michigan school districts. The news release said the new AI lab will serve as a hub for research relating to policy development, experimentation, safety and best practices for classroom use of AI.

“Michigan Virtual is committed to doing more to assist schools with AI integration. This includes technical assistance, customized professional development offerings, expanded experimentation and collaborative partnerships to pilot and evaluate new AI tools,” Michigan Virtual CEO Jamey Fitzpatrick said in a public statement.

Walt Sutterlin, a spokesman for Michigan Virtual, told Government Technology the nonprofit has an office in Lansing, but the AI lab is less a building than a multipronged initiative involving research, publications and sharing of best practices. He said Michigan Virtual is now in the process of doing speaking engagements, meeting with superintendents and their teams across the state, and holding professional development for high schools and education associations.

“We just recently stood [the AI lab] up out of necessity more than anything, because we created a planning guide for the K-12 integration of AI for all districts, and it really goes through eight lenses: legal, ethical, policy, leadership, student use, teacher use, outreach and back-end operations," he said. "With the launch of that planning guide — and it is now launched nationally, because we’re also tied into Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance, which is all of the virtual schools across the country — this planning guide has become the basis of the AI lab.”

Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, called the nonprofit's work "vital" for unleashing AI's potential.

“AI has the opportunity to be a disruptive force for K-12 schools, similar to the advent of the Internet," Horn said in a public statement. "And yet, educators do and should have big questions about how to make sure the AI they use is positive and impactful. Having labs like this to help answer those questions is critical."

According to the news release, Michigan Virtual hopes to raise more public- and private-sector funding in the coming years to expand its research efforts, and the AI lab will be managed by MVLRI Director Ken Dirkin.

“Michigan Virtual’s launch of this lab is revolutionary in the education space — it truly is one of a kind,” Elliot Soloway, a tenured computer science professor at the University of Michigan and co-director of the Center for Digital Curricula, said in a public statement. “Instructors, administrators and parents are so busy, but the work done within this lab will make clear the way forward to working with AI technology. These resources and guidance will be critical.”
Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.