Artificial Intelligence on the Rise, What Does it Mean for Avon Old Farms?
Artificial Intelligence, or AI, has always been a source of fascination. It’s been the subject of countless sci-fi stories and was always viewed as something that would become commonplace at some point in the future. Technological advancements throughout history have gradually brought us to a point in time where AI is now being utilized more and more.
In recent months, the presence of AI in schools has become especially noticeable, specifically AI programs called “Large Language Models.” One of these programs in particular, ChatGPT, exploded in popularity late last year. Created by the artificial intelligence research organization OpenAI, it uses a deep learning algorithm trained on a massive dataset of text from the internet, including books, articles, and websites. The model consists of a neural network with over 1.5 billion parameters, which allows it to generate human-like responses to a wide variety of questions and prompts.
With this type of software growing exponentially, schools are scrambling to determine how best to regard AI tools in education. In one instance, a boarding school in England recently made headlines after announcing they had appointed an AI chatbot as the school’s headteacher, in a move that signifies some schools are fully embracing the new tool. Other schools have gone the opposite direction, and banned the technology altogether.
Unfortunately, not all of the news involving AI in schools has been positive, with both high school and college students utilizing the software to complete assignments for them. English teacher and Dean of Studies Graham Callaghan ’95 says that there were a few cases last year of students misusing ChatGPT, but at a school like Avon it’s easier to prevent. “There were a few instances that popped up last year, but our teachers know their students. Hearing students talk in class and being familiar with their written work from in-class writing assignments will make it obvious if they aren’t writing something themselves. The culture of our school is one where we emphasize the relationship between teachers and students,” Callaghan says.
He went on to say that the plan is not to completely prohibit the use of AI in the classroom. In fact, he says it should sooner become part of the curriculum. “We need to do more than determine if students are using it. We need to teach them how to use it. Obviously, we will always insist students do their own work, but we cannot pretend students aren’t curious about AI and how it can help with their learning. I think we have to embrace it. It’s about finding the right place and way to use it.”
In October, Callaghan attended a forum organized by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) that discussed how to incorporate AI in education. The event featured five panelists from around the world and over 2000 participants representing hundreds of schools. Callaghan says that based on his discussions at the forum, everyone is at a different point of consideration on how to utilize AI. “It’s definitely a hot topic right now, and no one can predict where it’s going, but it’s not going away.” A primary focus of the NEASC forum was the importance of AI literacy. “In the past, schools had to focus on teaching digital literacy. Now that’s shifting. Adding AI literacy to classes is definitely becoming a priority,” Callaghan says.
He adds that giving teachers the tools and knowledge is just as important, and he worked with Dean of Faculty, Dr. Trevor Stern, to organize a full-faculty professional development day on November 27 focused on AI in education. The PD session featured a full day of both full-faculty and department-specific workshops led by Nate Green who was a panelist on the NEASC forum and was a faculty member at Avon before moving into his current role at Sidwell Friends school.
“One of the reasons we brought him in is because Nate is a teacher, so he knows how this tool can be relevant and applicable to us,” Stern explains.
Green began the day by addressing all faculty and staff with a summary of what AI and Large Language Models are and some of the potential ways it can benefit teachers. These programs can be used to create quizzes, worksheets, and classroom activities—something utilized a lot at Avon, where active and experiential learning are crucial for an all-boys education. “If you really learn how to best utilize it, these programs can really be a tool to enhance your lessons.”
While there are valid concerns that this technology could make certain subjects or teaching units obsolete, Green explained why the role of teachers is still vital. “It will certainly disrupt education, but it’s only going to make teachers more important, not less,” Green said, adding that these AI models are only making predictions based on data inputted by humans. While these AI models have access to seemingly-infinite information, they have a few shortcomings where teachers are needed. Metacognition and epistemology are two elements of education that can only be carried out through a teacher-student relationship.
There are other shortcomings with these AI programs that are a bit more malicious. ChatGPT and similar models have been known to make up misinformation in order to provide what it “thinks” the user wants. Plagiarism is also an issue. A cohort of authors including John Grisham and George R.R. Martin recently filed a lawsuit against OpenAI for what they claim to be theft of their copyrighted works without permission. There have also been instances where these language models produce results that reinforce negative stereotypes, revealing evidence of racial and gender bias in their programming.
The technology, however, is improving at a rapid rate. Despite the current negatives, Green explains that this technology is not going away, and since students are using it, teachers have a responsibility to understand it as well. “We can’t afford to just ignore this. We sort of missed the opportunity to educate students about social media, and that has led to a lot of issues. We can’t make that same mistake here because AI is only going to exacerbate those issues.” With AI now being utilized in things like college and job recruiting and insurance or healthcare applications, its paramount students learn how to utilize it.
Computer Science teacher Evan Sayles teaches the school’s coding and computer engineering classes, so naturally he has been at the forefront of AI’s integration into education. He says he isn’t stopping his students from getting familiar with AI. “Half of their test is always hand-writing code, so no matter what they are learning how to do things on their own without the use of AI, but I do encourage them to use it in smart ways for their personal projects,” Sayles says.
Sayles is very confident that AI will only become more prominent inside the classroom and beyond. “In the very near future I think AI will be fully ingrained in how we teach—in a way that will elevate it.”
Peter Rice ’76, P’15 has been teaching at Avon for more than 30 years. He reflected on how this rapid development of AI programs compares to the effect the internet had on education. He says he doesn’t recall the insurgence of the internet being this concerning. “I think this is more profound because of its ability to predict and imitate human interaction. Internet just provided a pool of information, you still had to know enough to go in and find what you’re looking for.”
Callaghan says he hopes students and teachers can work together to navigate this new phenomenon. He says there is potential for an Intersession course focused on AI. He also shared that a group of students have expressed interest in starting a club focused on exploring the possibilities of AI. “That’s something I would definitely encourage.”
Green says that it will be vital for students to be included in these conversations, because the way they find it useful varies tremendously from how educators view the technology. While there is already some language included in the student handbook regarding AI, both Green and Callaghan agree that coming up with an overarching school policy is easier said than done. “Policies are incredibly tough to craft because of fast this is evolving. We need to go beyond that.” Green says. “It’s more of coming up with a philosophy: How do we want to use it and how do our values intersect.”
While the future of AI is still relatively unknown, it is safe to say at this point that it is not going away. Fortunately, Avon Old Farms School is committed to helping boys navigate the unknown.