How to create PD for AI in the classroom

Artificial intelligence is here to stay, and with the right instruction and support, it can excite teachers and enrich students’ learning.
Wess Trabelsi
Wess Trabelsi
Wess Trabelsi is an educational technology and project-based learning specialist for Model Schools on the Educator Edge team at Ulster BOCES. He works with teachers and administrators to help them integrate technology into their classrooms. By assessing their needs and objectives, he assists schools with installing and using educational apps that offer more differentiated learning, are more interactive, and in turn, more fun for students. This drives student engagement. He can be reached at [email protected].

The suspicion that technology might interfere with learning is at least as old as widely literate societies. According to Plato, Socrates believed that the widespread use of writing would lead students to forget important information. Something similar is happening with artificial intelligence right now. It seems like it’s everywhere, and it’s so capable that many are worrying that there won’t be anything left for humans to do.

It remains to be seen whether AI will fundamentally change human society in the way literacy did, but we already know that AI is a tool that can extend human capabilities and free us from mundane chores to focus on more exciting and fundamentally human things, like creative expression, exploration, and problem-solving.

AI does, however, present challenges to our traditional educational systems. Within my organization, Ulster Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), we’ve already begun offering our educators professional development designed to help them address those challenges and use AI to enrich their students’ learning. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you encourage your teachers to wrestle with how AI can fit into your learning environments.

Introducing artificial intelligence concepts and tools

I offer a series of three introductory webinars for teachers in my organization and its component districts. (As a BOCES, Ulster serves all the districts in our county, filling a role similar to that of educational service districts or county departments of education in other states.) Each webinar lasts 30-90 minutes, and they cover understanding the artificial intelligence revolution, teacher tools, and tools that students can use.

In the first session, I try to drive home that the big differentiator of the new generation of AI tools is that they can understand natural language. That, in turn, means they can learn to use any tools humans can, so we talk about the likely consequences for the job market and higher ed, as well.

The second webinar is about free, teacher-facing AI tools. I like Brisk Teaching, for example, because as a Chrome extension, it is very light and unobtrusive. Brisk is just a button that lives in the bottom right corner of your browser and can be used on whichever page of the text-based resource or student work you’re currently using. It follows you on every page you visit without the need to keep a separate tab open. This second session is more hands-on. I explain how to log on to tools like ChatGPT, the main principles of prompt engineering, and useful share links.

In the third session, we discuss how students can use AI and the implications of those uses. Although I do present examples of student work where AI was used at some point, the main idea is to communicate that students are already using AI, and that the percentage of students who use it for schoolwork is increasing rapidly.

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AI detection tools do not work reliably, so teachers who continue to design assignments the same way they always have are condemning themselves to a life of grading papers written by AI. A lot of teachers are turning to paper-and-pencil methods to avoid this, but clearly, this can’t be a long-term solution and will without a doubt decrease engagement and students’ perception of schoolwork’s purpose. So what do we do then?

This third session is meant to be more conversational because I do not have a clear and definitive answer to this conundrum. I do present perspectives and ideas, but if attendees leave the webinar understanding the issue, it has accomplished its goal. Models such as project-based learning and process-based assessment are going to be part of the answer. As an educator, I would rather find a way to design assignments for which I wouldn’t even have to wonder if AI was used.

The reception from teachers has been quite good. I’ve advocated for technology in the past, but this time I see teachers adopting the tools much more frequently. One teacher came up to me after a recent PD session and said that she had never felt the need to engage with education technology before, but she was inspired to learn more about these tools. When teachers see what’s possible with AI, it becomes difficult to ignore.

Elements of effective AI PD

It’s important to offer more than one-and-done sessions for artificial intelligence PD. Ideally, teachers should receive multiple PD sessions throughout the year, supporting them with scaffolding the entire way, just as we do when teaching students. Between sessions, teachers need time to play and experiment.

As a PD leader, it might even be a good idea to give them assignments to nudge them toward exploration. In the next session, they can share notes, talk about their challenges and successes, ask questions, and chat with each other about how they can use what they’ve learned in class.

It’s also important to provide context in AI PD. I’ve seen several webinars that present a product and show how it can be used—and stop there. If the PD isn’t explaining why helping students understand AI is fundamental to their future, teachers are far less likely to adopt it.

To encourage teachers who may be apprehensive about adopting these new tools, I would suggest modeling the use of AI and simply giving teachers time to learn about it. If you send out a district-wide memo, for example, don’t be afraid to use AI to draft it—and be sure to include a note in the memo acknowledging that you did so. This will go a long way towards taking away teachers’ fear and suspicion.

Getting started on your own

If your school or district isn’t offering professional development about artificial intelligence, don’t be afraid to create your own. Reach out to other teachers in your building or across the country on social media to build your own PLC.

Remember, this is a space where we’re all learning and will all continue to learn for the foreseeable future. We develop our understanding of these tools by sharing ideas and successes, commiserating over challenges, and brainstorming solutions to them.

It’s also helpful to follow educators who are talking about AI on YouTube and Substack. One of my favorites is Ethan Mollick. He suggests that people who want to understand AI should spend about 10 hours trying to get an AI program like ChatGPT to perform a variety of tasks. Use it to write something to your spouse, coworkers, or boss; try to learn something new; or try to automate some of your work tasks.

The idea is essentially trying to use it for anything you have to do that involves producing language or code. That will give you a basic understanding of what AI can and cannot do. Those capabilities will change quickly, but the 10-hour project will give you a clear picture of what your chosen tool can do right now.

In the end, AI in education will be what educators make of it. If you work with innovative teachers who inspire you and experiment with what’s possible instead of hiding from what might be, you’ll open possibilities for your students to discover that artificial intelligence, like writing, can be a powerful educational tool.

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