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October 3, 2023

On a recent morning, Cheryl Drakeford, a third-grade teacher at First Avenue Elementary School in Newark, posed a challenging math problem on the whiteboard in her classroom: “The word mathematician How many of the letters are consonants?”

Ms. Drakeford knew that “consonant” might be an unfamiliar word to some students. So she suggested they turn to Khanmigo, a new tutoring robot that uses artificial intelligence.

She paused for a minute, and about 15 elementary school students dutifully typed the same question — “What are consonants?” — into their math software. Then she asked the third graders to share the tutoring robot’s answers.

“A consonant is a letter of the alphabet that is not a vowel,” a student read aloud. “Vowlets are A, E, I, O, and U. Consonants are all other letters.”

The tech industry hype and doomsday predictions surrounding AI-enhanced chatbots like ChatGPT have many schools scrambling this year to block or limit the use of these tools in classrooms. Newark Public Schools is taking a different approach. It was one of the first school systems in the U.S. to pilot test Khanmigo, an automated teaching aid developed by Khan Academy, an educational nonprofit whose online courses are used by hundreds of districts. use.

Newark has largely voluntarily become a guinea pig for public schools across the country that are trying to separate the practical uses of new AI-assisted tutoring robots from their marketing promises.

Proponents argue that classroom chatbots could democratize the idea of ​​tutoring by automatically tailoring responses to students, allowing them to complete lessons at their own pace. Critics warn that the bots, trained on vast databases of text, could produce plausible misinformation, a risky bet for schools.

Officials in Newark, New Jersey’s largest school district, said they were cautiously testing tutoring robots at three schools. Their findings could have implications for districts across the U.S. that are reviewing artificial intelligence tools for the upcoming school year.

“It’s important to introduce it to our students because it’s not going away,” Timothy NellegaThe director of educational technology for Newark Public Schools said of AI-assisted technology. “But we need to figure out how it works, the risks, the benefits and the downsides.”

Khan Academy is one of a handful of online learning companies creating new tutoring bots based on language models developed by OpenAI, the research lab behind ChatGPT. Khan Academy, whose top technology donors include Google, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Elon Musk Foundation, received access to AI models last year.

Designed for schools, the tutoring bot typically guides students through the sequential steps needed to solve a problem.

When Khan Academy began looking for areas to pilot test its experimental mentor bot this spring, Newark volunteered. Many local elementary schools are already using the educational organization’s online math courses to track students’ mastery of concepts like grouping numbers. During an initial pilot testing phase, the AI ​​tools will be provided to these schools for free.

District officials said they wanted to see if Khanmigo could improve student engagement and math learning. Schools like First Avenue, where many children from low-income families attend, are eager to give students the opportunity to try new AI-assisted teaching aids early on.

Districts like Newark pay $10 per student per year for using Khan Academy’s online courses, analytics, and other school services (excluding Khanmigo). Participating districts that want to pilot test Khanmigo for the upcoming school year will pay an additional $60 per student, the nonprofit said, noting that the computational cost of the AI ​​models is “high.”

Students in Newark began using Khan’s automated teaching aids in May. So far, reviews have been mixed.

On a recent morning, sixth graders at First Avenue Elementary were working on a statistics assignment that involved conducting their own consumer surveys. Their teacher, Tito Rodriguez, advises students to start by asking Hamigo two background questions: What is a survey? What makes a question statistical?

Mr Rodriguez described the robot as a helpful “co-teacher”, allowing him to dedicate extra time to children who need instruction while freeing up more self-driven students to work on it.

“Now they don’t have to wait for Mr. Rodriguez,” he said. “They can ask Hamigol.”

In Ms. Drakeford’s math class, the robot’s responses to students sometimes seemed less like suggestions and more like direct answers.

When students asked Khanmigo questions about fractions posted on classroom whiteboards, the robot replied that the word “mathematician” contains 13 letters, seven of which are consonants. This means that the ratio of consonants is 7 out of 13, or 7/13, the robot wrote.

“That’s our biggest concern, too much thinking is done through Khanmigo,” said Alan Uselenko, a special assistant for schools in the area, including the First Avenue school in Newark’s North Side. The district doesn’t want robots to walk students through problems, he said, adding, “We want them to know how to solve problems on their own, using their critical thinking skills.”

Khan Academy said in an email that students often need initial support to go through problem-solving steps, and exercises can help them learn to do those steps automatically without assistance.

The group added that the tutoring bots are designed to help students solve problems, not give them answers. But the organization said Hemigo “helped too much, too soon” when it came to Newark’s score.

“Our engineering team corrected the AI ​​a few weeks ago to no longer give an answer to this question,” Khan Academy said in an email Tuesday.

A reporter posed the same score question to Hemigo on Wednesday. In student mode, the tutor robot explained the steps and then gave the answer straight away: “The word ‘mathematician’ has a consonant ratio of 7/13.”

In teacher mode, which is designed to guide educators through questions and answers, the bot provided different (wrong) responses. Hanmigo incorrectly stated that the word “mathematician” has eight consonants. This resulted in the bot giving the wrong answer: “8 consonants / 14 letters = 8/14”

Khan Academy said in an email that it had addressed the issue in the student’s “Tutor Me: Math and Science” section, noting that reporters asked questions in other parts of the site. “As for the wrong answers given by teacher mode,” the email read, “sometimes Khanmigo makes mistakes.”

Even so, Mr Uselenko said he remained hopeful. The district suggested to Khan Academy that instead of relying on students to ask Khanmigo the right questions, it would be more helpful for the robot to ask students open-ended questions and analyze their responses.

“It’s not where I want to be yet,” Mr. Usherenko said of Hamigo. “But when it can spot student misunderstandings, it’s a game changer.”

Khan Academy says the tutoring bot often asks students open-ended questions, and the group is working on getting the AI ​​model to accurately identify misunderstandings. The nonprofit added that it is continuing to improve Khanmigo based on feedback from school districts.

Whether schools can afford AI-assisted tutoring robots remains to be seen.

Khan Academy said it will offer discounts in districts where more than half of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Even so, financial hurdles suggest that AI-enhanced classroom chatbots are unlikely to democratize tutoring anytime soon.

Mr. Nellega, Newark’s educational technology director, said his school district is looking for outside funding to help cover Hemigo’s costs this fall.

“The long-term cost of AI is our concern,” he said.



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