Recognizing when students are using AI for their homework is this school year’s newest challenge. Here’s how one county in Utah is handling it.

As a new school year begins in Utah, educators are less concerned about students resorting to the “dog ate my homework” excuse—their more pressing concern is that it’s a chatbot did the homework.

This scenario is one of many concerns driving discussions as the Provo School District begins writing a new policy on artificial intelligence for its students.

“It doesn’t make sense to send a writing assignment home,” said Suzy Cox, director of innovative learning, “and expect the texts that come back to have been produced by that individual student without the help of AI.”

It is primarily about generative AI, which can create original articles, images, music and more by learning from existing data. ChatGPT is the most widely used generative AI platform. With a single prompt, it can compose an essay about the War of 1812, solve a complex math problem, or write a Shakespearean-style play in seconds.

“AI is not a fad,” said Cox. “This is not a technology that will go away in a few months. This is transformative.”

She compared the influence of AI on society with the influence of tractors. “Once you have the tractor, you don’t have to resort to horse and hoe,” Cox said. “You’re going to stay with this tractor, and that’s where we are.”

Since ChatGPT’s release last year, educators haven’t had much time to address issues such as whether to allow classroom use or how the tool impacts student learning and creativity.

Many counties, including Provo, initially responded with an outright ban on the technology — at least on laptops handed out by schools.

However, the conversations are evolving as local and state officials recognize the need to adjust educational approaches to prepare students for careers that will inevitably involve AI.

“Our students need to learn how to use this stuff,” Cox said. “They need to understand how it works, how it’s made, have the ability to create it themselves, and at the same time they need to use it ethically.”

Despite this need, few schools have established guidelines for the use of AI. A global survey by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization found that fewer than 10% of surveyed schools and universities had formal guidance on generative AI applications.

As the Provo School District attempts to develop its own policies, officials are considering factors far beyond issues like homework cheating, such as student privacy.

“Ultimately, our use must be intentional, safe and equitable,” Cox told school board members last week. “So those are the principles that drive what we’re talking about now.”

student privacy

Current AI platforms available to students aren’t bound by privacy agreements with the state or school districts, Cox said.

However, schools and school districts must comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects the privacy of student records.

This raises legal issues and prevents teachers from requiring it Cox said students will be given the opportunity to use AI for teaching or even allow them to experiment with it.

Teachers could play with it in front of students, Cox explained, to show them how it works, but they can’t allow them to use it unless the parents have given consent.

equality between students

While parents can individually grant their children permission to use AI programs on devices owned by them or their family, this creates inequality among students, Cox said. Those who have the ability to access multiple devices can easily – and will – circumvent school device restrictions, but others may not have the same capabilities.

“Without being naïve that students will use it,” asked board member Megan Van Wagenen, “then how can we protect ourselves from the issue of justice?”

“I don’t know,” Cox replied. “It’s really so variable. Because we have many parents who aren’t particularly aware of AI, and so their children may be using it completely unconsciously. We have other parents who really have it all.”

It’s something the county needs to continue to manage and educate parents about, she said.

Recognize when students are using AI

While there is software that can determine if a work was created using AI, it is not particularly effective.

Plagiarism is easier to spot because it can be traced back to an existing source. Content generated by AI is original.

“Even ChatGPT gets to a point where it can’t recognize its own work,” Cox said. “AI is changing so fast that the software can’t keep up.”

Teachers are then able to match the student’s word to a report stating that AI was discovered.

“There’s really no way to prove that one way or the other,” Cox said.

Despite the limitations, Cox recommended the board purchase AI/plagiarism detection software, citing copyleaks as a possible option. On its website, the company advertises itself as the only “enterprise AI detection solution” and promises an accuracy of 99.1%.

How can teachers use AI?

As the Provo District considers the ethical use of AI for students, it also recognizes potential benefits for teachers.

“It has to be part of our lessons,” Cox said. “We as administrators, teachers and staff can and should use it to increase our efficiency and effectiveness and improve our student experiences in our classrooms.”

AI can be used to help with everyday tasks and provide ideas for lesson plans. Part of using AI as a teaching tool is recognizing its enduring impact on classroom practice, also called pedagogy, she said.

“We need to change our pedagogy,” Cox said.

For example, if the academic focus remains on developing the quality of writing that a student can create on their own, the teachers’ approach to writing needs to change. It could mean more writing in the classroom, changing the way students write and monitoring work more closely, Cox said.

“[AI] doesn’t just affect writing,” she said. “It’s in art, it’s in everything… It permeates multiple realms.”

And it will continue to be so, in both expected and unexpected ways.

Justin Scaccy

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