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Opinion: Oregon Shows Schools Where to Start With AI

One of the only two states to provide schools with official guidance on artificial intelligence so far, Oregon published an explainer on its website with tips, definitions, references and links to helpful resources.

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I’ve written about artificial intelligence before — about its need for oversight, its potential to advance competency-based education and its new capacity for adaptation. Here I’d like to focus on policy related to digital learning as experienced by students in person and online.

The good news is that policy related to student use and experience of AI is being taken up by educators, schools, districts and states. Some state legislatures are beginning to address these issues. The bad news is that reports indicate we are a bit behind. As the Center for Digital Education reported this month, California and Oregon are the only two states to provide schools with official guidance on AI so far.

There are many good resources for educators setting policy in this area. California has good resources, including the Stanford Graduate School of Education’s TeachAI Toolkit, with links to many good resources, and "From Reactive to Proactive — Putting Districts in the AI Driver’s Seat." The California Department of Education’s web page "Learning With AI, Learning About AI" is also good.

I recently spoke with Beth Blumenstein, Oregon’s interim director of digital learning and well-rounded access, who filled me in on Oregon’s work in this area. She was featured in a recent story by the nonprofit education website The 74. As an Oregon educator, I want to share what Oregon is doing that I think will be a very useful tool and resource for educators proposing policy in this area.

I don’t want to claim that Oregon has all the answers, but I do think it has asked most of the questions and raised most of the issues that need to be addressed as rapidly as possible in a single document. Note: Digital technology is coming at us much faster than our ability to learn how to fully use it and understand it. It is coming much faster than our ability to think through all of the policies needed to utilize it correctly and prevent possible harm. We need faster and more agile policy-adoption procedures, and we need to acknowledge these are all works in progress and subject to change as we learn and experience them further.

One of the main messages in all my education work is that no one should reinvent the wheel. In this case, I suggest that these Oregon resources are excellent places to start thinking about generative AI in the classroom, as well as the policy-adoption process related to its use. (For this purpose, left out of this discussion are other uses of AI, such as its use in school operations and by teachers in ways that are not experienced by students directly as AI.) These Oregon resources are all accessible on the Oregon Department of Education’s Digital Learning web page.

The department recently posted a new document: "Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) in K-12 Classrooms." It draws from Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning, a report released in May by the U.S. Department of Education’s (U.S. ED) Office of Educational Technology. The approach I think would be most efficient and prevent “wheel reinvention” is to use Oregon’s new report as a guide to asking the right questions and making sure all issues are being addressed. This will be useful for those starting anew or wanting to simplify their current process.

One theme Oregon adopted from the U.S. ED’s report that is worth thinking about is the senior role of educators in both the use of, and the policies regarding, AI. Oregon notes that the U.S. ED report “puts an emphasis on developing people rather than machine-centered policies by keeping humans in the loop when using AI. They use the following metaphor to describe its use noting that ‘teachers, learners and others need to retain their agency to decide what patterns mean and to choose courses of action.’“

Oregon writes:

"We envision a technology-enhanced future more like an electric bike and less like robot vacuums. On an electric bike, the human is fully aware and fully in control, but their burden is less, and their effort is multiplied by a complementary technological enhancement. Robot vacuums do their job, freeing the human from involvement or oversight.

"This resource developed by ODE as well as any future resources align with this metaphor in that whenever using AI (or any educational technology in the classroom) it is essential that educators are the decision makers and their knowledge and expertise is central." [bold in the original document]

For educators who wonder about the focus on generative AI when AI’s use in education is much broader, the Oregon report explains:

“[T]his document focuses on AI applications that are generative in nature — referred to herein as ‘generative AI.’ This includes programs like ChatGPT, Bard and other chatbots that use AI and natural language processing (NLP) to provide humanlike responses to questions. The field of AI encompasses far more than just generative AI. However, given the rapid emergence of chatbots like ChatGPT and Bard in the field of education, this resource focuses solely on this application of AI. It is important to acknowledge that AI is growing at a rapid pace and additional platforms and resources will continue to be developed.”

I think educators and administrators alike will find the Oregon report very useful. It

  • has excellent references,
  • explains AI and defines related vocabulary,
  • has many links to resources, including organizations that are addressing issues related to the use of AI and teaching about AI,
  • addresses equity implications of AI use in the classroom, and offers potential strategies to deal with them,
  • addresses student data privacy issues.

More good news is that the Oregon report doesn’t just focus on caution and concern, but includes all of the potential benefits. It notes that current benefits or uses for generative AI include:

  • learning design
  • teaching tools
  • instructional support
  • virtual assistant
  • student support and guidance
  • future career options

The report notes the importance of addressing all aspects of AI, because it is “likely to be central to future careers — both in terms of understanding how AI functions (computer science) and using AI to communicate and engage in work functions (digital literacy). Therefore, supporting students in learning about AI and using it responsibly, ethically, and productively will support them far beyond their K-12.”

I agree with their conclusion, mentioned earlier, that “[g]enerative AI and any other AI or technology does not, and cannot, replace a teacher or a counselor.”

Due to the speed of technological advances, this discussion and policy setting must be a priority, fast-tracked, ongoing discussion about a technology that is permeating and changing every area of our lives.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.