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Teachers turn to AI to make workload more manageable, chart lesson plans

‘I was able to plan most of my school year in a really short amount of time this summer’
Teacher Kasi Humber poses in Truro, N.S. on Friday Aug. 25, 2023. Humber says she uses ChatGPT to help her organize report cards and create French reading materials that allow her students to learn new vocabulary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

Jessica Reid has thought about quitting the career she’d dreamed of since childhood hundreds of times.

Until recently, she was overwhelmed by her workload as an elementary school teacher— planning lessons for all subjects, creating behavioural support plans for students, grading, not to mention actual classroom time — while also raising three young kids of her own.

But then Reid turned to artificial intelligence, joining droves of other teachers who say the technology keeps their workload manageable, especially as they chart the course for a new school year.

“I really wanted to dedicate this summer to exploring some of these AI tools and how to help me in my planning and my administrative duties,” she said from her home in Muskoka, Ont.

“Either I was sacrificing my family and using my evenings and weekends on hours and hours of planning, or I was dedicating more time to my family and … didn’t feel like I was doing my students justice,” she said. “So on either end, I felt like I was sort of dropping the ball.”

Now, she’ll run Ontario’s curriculum through an AI program called Eduaide.AI and ask it to spit out lessons for her. She doesn’t rely on it for information — and what information it does give, she always fact checks. It just gives her a guideline of what to teach and when, she said.

“I was able to plan most of my school year in a really short amount of time this summer. And in the subjects that I’m not an expert in and don’t feel as confident or passionate about teaching, the AI was able to fill in those blanks for me,” she said.

Reid has been posting about her discoveries and sharing resources on social media, which she said has garnered both support and backlash.

Some commenters have accused her of setting a bad example, because if students were to do the same, it could be considered cheating.

Reid, however, dismisses those concerns.

“The role of the teacher and the student is very different. I earned my role as a teacher. I already have been through the education system,” she said. “These kids are still on their academic path. I’m done mine.”

Advancements in artificial intelligence are cause for skepticism and excitement alike, teachers say. While some students may use technology to cheat, those tools also have the potential to make education more efficient.

“I’ve been trying to figure out how to ride the wave instead of getting caught up in the wave and I really feel like this is a real disruption,” said Kasi Humber, a French teacher in Truro, N.S.

Humber began experimenting with artificial intelligence after the 2022 release of the application ChatGPT, an AI-powered language model that captured the public’s attention because it could write essays, solve complicated math problems and write code in just seconds.

Humber, who teaches about 200 students across three schools, said she began to use the technology to put together report cards. It allows her to input information and build organized spreadsheets with grades and comments for students.

Humber has also used it to provide reading materials that caters to her students’ level and interests. A student learning French who struggles with vocabulary can be given an AI-produced story that emphasizes the words they have trouble with, for example.

“That has really helped me with their reading comprehension, just by making sure that I’m providing them with things that they actively want to be reading,” she said.

As the school year begins, Humber said she’s excited to use it more.

“I’d much rather learn how to do it and stay ahead of it,” she said.

Denis Tanguay, a high school computer science and shop teacher in the Ottawa French Catholic School Board, said he is still processing the use of the technology in his classroom. And while he hasn’t used the technology yet for his own course planning, he will allow students to use ChatGPT to improve their presentations.

“We don’t need to be afraid of the tool, but we need to teach the students how to use the tool properly,” he said.

Tanguay said he would like to see more direction from education officials on how teachers might be able to use the technology.

“I think we’re looking at the first year where we’re going to be dealing with AI in the classroom,” he said.

“It’s a reality, and we can’t ignore it.”

However many educational institutions have not yet formalized their policies on the use of AI, which for some has created uncertainty.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation, said some teachers use AI to determine whether work has been plagiarized.

“Our world’s kind of changed in April last year when ChatGPT came out,” Littlewood said.

“I think the responsibility lies first with the Ministry of Education and secondly with the administration at school boards to be sharing information and making sure that they have the best informed staff possible.”

Sarah Eaton, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and an expert in AI education, says school boards and provincial education ministries should consider professional development for teachers to learn about AI and recognize when it is being used for cheating.

“It can also be scary because you’re going to have a whole different range of uses,” she said.

Eaton, who has adopted AI technology in her own classes with an AI platform that can identify gaps in existing research, said teachers should try to embrace the new reality kids are living in.

“Children who are five years old or younger … they will never know school without artificial intelligence as part of their daily lives,” she said.

“I think it’s kind of irresponsible for us as educators to turn a blind eye to that.”

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