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Oklahoma schools, universities incorporate AI as state grapples with emerging technology

Second grade students at Tulsa Public Schools' John Burroughs Elementary work with the AI tutoring program, Amira.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Second grade students at Tulsa Public Schools' John Burroughs Elementary work with the AI tutoring program, Amira.

As Oklahoma officials urge the state to embrace artificial intelligence, in some schools, these systems have already arrived.

The three largest districts in the state say they’ve begun to incorporate AI programs, as both school and state leaders see an impetus to get ahead of the emerging technology. Artificial intelligence combines a human-like ability to learn with task completion at a machine pace.

The state’s education system will be “absolutely critical” to AI development in Oklahoma, said Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa.

Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa
Legislative Services Bureau
Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s AI task force, which Boatman is part of, recently issued a reporturging schools to both teach about AI and use it as an efficiency tool.

A key goal, the report states, is to cultivate a generation that is “conversant” with AI and prepared for a workforce where this technology is ubiquitous.

“I think the key for us is how do we teach our people, particularly our students, to maximize the benefit of those (systems)?” Boatman said. “How do we become intelligent, efficient users of the technology? And also how do we become critical of it?”

Oklahoma schools are now trying to balance AI’s benefits with its risks to data privacy and academic integrity.

Programs like ChatGPT are capable of generating entire essays without students having to demonstrate any learning. Some AI-created text isn’t factual, either — a concept called “hallucinations.”

Some districts, like Epic Charter School, have implemented policies governing acceptable AI use.

Epic, which serves about 27,000 students primarily online, encourages use of AI systems as a supplement to learning, said Beth Wehling, the school’s executive director of educational technology.

“People have said AI is not going to replace you, but someone who knows AI will,” Wehling said. “That’s why AI literacy is going to be very important, and we need to get ahead of it. As an industry (of) education, we have to prepare people.”

She said these tools are meant to be helpful, but they shouldn’t do students’ work for them. Epic is training teachers how to catch AI-written text, like using hidden words in assignment prompts.

The virtual charter school found AI also could be an effective administrative tool. Wehling said one of Epic’s principals is funneling anonymized test scores into an AI system to create individualized learning plans for students, and the academic results are paying off.

“Our students are learning because they’re being focused in areas that they need to be focused,” she said.

The governor’s task force encouraged schools to leverage AI technology to develop student learning plans and reduce time spent on administrative tasks.

Students in Tulsa Public Schools work with an AI tutor to boost reading skills. Oklahoma City Public Schools trained teachers on multiple programs, including ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, for future use.

The Oklahoma City district is piloting an AI math software at two high schools, as well.

“This pilot program aims to enhance the learning experience in mathematics by leveraging the personalized and adaptive learning capabilities of AI,” district spokesperson Crystal Raymond said. “We believe that these initiatives will not only improve educational outcomes but also prepare our students for a future where AI is increasingly prevalent.”

The topic is gathering interest at the state Capitol as lawmakers convene for their 2024 session.

Boatman filed legislation, called the Artificial Intelligence Bill of Rights, that would require Oklahomans be informed any time they are interacting with an AI-generated piece of content or an AI engine rather than a real person, among other provisions.

A bill from Rep. Arturo Alonso-Sandoval, D-Oklahoma City, would make curriculum materials and teacher training about AI available to all public schools. The bill would establish a revolving fund to provide state funding for these resources.

“The best way I think we can really address the issues that will continue to come up with the deployment of AI is by informing ourselves and educating ourselves,” Alonso-Sandoval said.

Higher education institutions also have growing interest and concern.

The state’s two largest colleges, the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, will include artificial intelligence programs in their new polytechnic institutes.

Faculty in all departments, not only in technology-focused courses, consider the possibility of AI use, said Christine Ormsbee, OSU’s vice provost.

Each professor decides whether to allow it in class. Some are quick to adopt it, Ormsbee said, and others — particularly in programs where writing assignments are integral – don’t permit AI use at all.

It’s a decision institutions face at all levels of education, said Ormsbee, a former K-12 teacher.

“My responsibility is to teach you some foundational skills, and if you’re using a technology tool that allows you to complete a task I’ve given you without accomplishing the skill development, then I’ve not done my job,” she said. “Already we’re seeing a lot of opportunities for K-12 schools to use ChatGPT and other AI tools. They’re just going to have to figure out the best ways.”

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.
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