Digital Education

Will AI Aid Learning or Undercut It?

High School Teachers Grapple with How Much AI is Right for the Classroom 

Amid all the hype and panic over artificial intelligence, one thing is already clear: a new generation of advanced AI programs is transforming the classroom, and school officials are racing to keep up.

“Anytime I’m walking around and teaching my students how to do things for our class, I see a ChatGPT tab open on their Chromebooks,” said Bruno Morlan, an AP® U.S. History teacher at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California. “We very quickly moved from asking how do we detect it, to how do we use it to enhance teacher efficiency and student learning?”

The rapid development of AI tools that can write an original essay, generate practice questions, or critique a student project has forced educators across the country to adapt their curriculum and their attitudes about the right role for technology in student learning. Both students and teachers say that programs like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Google’s Gemini, and Perplexity AI have quickly become common knowledge among students across the country, even as different schools take very different approaches to regulating the new tools.

The speed of the technology’s advance has presented an especially sharp challenge. When ChatGPT was released in November of 2022, it became one of the fastest-adopted software programs in history. Built on what’s called a large language model, AI tools effectively draw on the entire internet to create detailed essays, write everything from computer code to court briefs, and answer questions from users. Students quickly figured it out that they could type essay prompts or research queries into AI tools and get comprehensive, original responses—making AI an ideal aid or unfair crutch, depending on how it’s used.

Faster feedback, personalized cover art

Morlan’s school has taken a fairly open approach to AI assistants, encouraging students and teachers to experiment with the technology. He was an early adopter of a program called Class Companion, which allows students to get instant feedback on short-answer questions so they can hone their writing without waiting on a teacher’s guidance.

“Now that they’ve been doing it for the entire year, they’re getting quite good at it,” Morlan said, explaining that the AI grading isn’t perfect, but allows for a rapid cycle of improvement. “It’s better in that they’re getting instant feedback. There aren’t thirty of me to read through all of their work, and this allows everyone to get personalized feedback.”

Acalanes High School is in the Bay Area, only a half-hour east of San Francisco and the center of the country’s booming AI industry. Morlan said many of the parents of his students are already familiar with AI and often use it in their own workplaces, so it makes sense for the school to embrace the technology.

Sean Shvo is a senior at Acalanes and took Mr. Morlan’s AP U.S. History (APUSH) course last year. He first heard about ChatGPT and other generative AI tools from YouTube videos, and he was an early adopter for school use. “It was really good for extra practice,” he said. “I fed it all the notes we took in class, and it would make practice questions based off of that.”

He was glad to have a supportive teacher in Mr. Morlan and felt that the fast-paced feedback on short-answer and essay questions helped him improve his mastery of APUSH subjects. “It’s just a much more efficient way to see how you’re doing,” Shvo said. “I don’t think it was as accurate as the teacher, but it was so much more efficient.”

Not all educators are as open in their approach to AI, though, and the line between ethical and unethical AI help can get blurry. Shvo said that it’s a constant debate among his peers, with lots of uncertainty about what constitutes cheating and what’s a reasonable use of AI as a learning aid.

“If you’re afraid you’re gonna get caught and get in trouble, that’s a good way to tell you’re probably not using it for the right reasons,” he said. “It also comes down to what you use it for, or your teacher’s preferences. If I want it to edit my essay, is that allowed? In my perspective, it’s like a peer review. But it depends on your teacher.”

Giving clear guidance to students is crucial, Mr. Morlan said, because so many students are already immersed in an online world where AI experimentation is normal. Shvo explained how he uses AI image generators to create custom cover art for his streaming playlists, and how AI editing software is allowing him to produce quick promotional videos for the school’s finance club. He can even offer a nuanced critique of different image generation programs — how creative they are, how responsive to different requests.

“I like the more creative side,” Shvo said. “Having to try out different prompts and stuff, I love that.”

Finding an authentic voice

On the other side of the country, at Felix Varela High School in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, Natalie Castillo is worried about protecting her students’ creativity from encroaching chatbots. Many of the students in her AP English Literature course arrive without much confidence in their own writing ability, and Castillo doesn’t want them to cede their still-developing voices to the authority of an algorithm.

“I worry about them using it as a model, deciding that this is what good writing sounds like,” she explained. “AI has this monotone, analytical voice. It’s really not a great model for the kind of reflective, authentic writing I want them to do.”

Her school is taking a prohibitive approach to AI tools, blocking access on school-issued laptops and generally treating AI help as a form of plagiarism. Castillo isn’t quite that restrictive, acknowledging that many of her students are experimenting with AI programs at home or finding ways around the school’s network ban. But she favors a more old-school, hands-on approach to classroom writing.

“Revision is the single most important space for growth, so I try to do a lot of the revision work in class,” she said. Castillo also schedules one-on-one “writer’s conferences” with any student who asks, helping them hone essays and interrogate their own thinking about a subject.

That approach is driven in part by her own experience as an AP student, attending the same high school where she now teaches. “I got so lucky with all my teachers, but especially my English teachers,” she recalled. “I took AP English Language, and Mrs. Cabrero was this incredible teacher who really encouraged us, made us feel valid. I had so many experiences experimenting with my voice—when it should be analytical, when it should be narrative.” She doesn’t want her students to outsource that hard-won growth and confidence to AI.

Sofija Leal, a junior in Castillo’s class, echoed that worry. She first learned about ChatGPT through TikTok, where students can easily find thousands of videos demonstrating how to use AI software for school assignments. Stressed out during an overloaded sophomore year, Leal experimented with AI to generate responses for homework assignments.

“I was not as confident as I thought I should be in my writing,” she recalled “I thought I wasn’t comparable to other people in my class, so I might as well use it to sound more sophisticated.” Those AI responses slipped through largely unnoticed, something Sofija said is common among her peers using AI help. “I hear a lot of conversations in classes about it, or I see them right in front of me using it!”

Now, a year later and deep into Castillo’s AP English Language course, Leal is glad that the class’s low-tech approach has forced her to hone her writing skills. “Right now, today, I think I can write so much better than ChatGPT and whatever AIs there are,” she said. “I think I’m a good writer—I’ve had practice in AP Lang and APUSH. I’m a lot more sure of myself, and I can see the growth in my own writing.”

To keep the focus on students’ own thoughts, and away from the temptation of an AI assist, Castillo has been using more prompts that demand personal reflection. She’ll offer a short, philosophical quote—H.L Mencken on the role of artists as social critics, for example, or Antigone on pride and defiance—and ask students to give their interpretation, backed by a strong line of reasoning and personal experiences.

“It really makes you draw from life,” explained Lucas Escober, a junior in Castillo’s class. “You’re going to need to use everything you’ve learned about in your life just to write this one essay. It forces you to think more closely about yourself and everything you’ve experienced up to this point.”

He recalled how his own essay on art and criticism related back to a favorite episode of The Crown, where Winston Churchill spurns a famous artist’s portrait for not being sufficiently flattering. “It really forced me to think about what makes good art,” Escobar said. “I’ll find my own thoughts on a topic evolve over the course of an essay. I’ll find that if I start going down a certain path, I’ll evolve mid-essay to focus on that and think more about that.”

Using AI shortcuts could deprive students of that self-awareness and capacity for growth, Castillo worries. “I’m never going to be featured on PBS as this innovative teacher,” she said. “But my students keep coming back for more writer’s conferences, so I believe they feel like they’re growing.”

Worrying over AI inequality

The contrasts between Castillo’s school and Bruno Morlan’s also speak to a growing worry among policymakers about AI’s potential to deepen educational inequalities. Acalanes High in California is a predominantly white school where fewer than 10% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; Felix Varela in Miami-Dade is predominantly Hispanic, and about half of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

At Acalanes, Morlan serves as an advisor to an AI company, and some students get advice from their industry-connected parents on how to navigate the new technology.

Sean Shvo’s mother, Shira Abel, is a marketing executive who uses AI tools daily in her work. She’s already thinking about the career implications AI might have for her son. “AI is going to change so much over the next few years,” she said, explaining that one of her clients is designing an AI engineering program. “If it’s tactical and repetitive, computers can figure it out and make it faster. But if it’s strategic, computers are not as good at that, and it’ll just make you improve.” She wants to see Sean develop a combination of hard skills and liberal arts disciplines.

At Felix Varela, many students are interested in health fields—nursing, anesthesiology, radiology— where economists are predicting widespread disruption from emerging AI technologies. Sofija Leal said she’s considering nursing and hopes that the writing skills she’s honed in AP Language will be valuable in communicating and sharing medical notes. She worries that many of her classmates are tempted to use AI as a substitute for building writing skills. “You scroll and come across a video, and it’s someone talking about school and how to make it easier,” she said. “I think that’s how AI became so popular so quickly.”

Both Castillo and Morlan have participated in a working group of teachers, sponsored by the Advanced Placement® Program, exploring the different ways AI is making its way into classrooms across the country. Some schools have entire staff positions or committees devoted to studying AI’s educational applications, while others have left it to individual teachers to craft rules and give advice to students navigating the brave new world of algorithmic essays and chatbot tutors.

“We’re really moving toward policies that are more nuanced around AI, recognizing that many schools are encouraging students to use it for brainstorming, for editing, for practice,” said Natalya Tabony, executive director for AP strategy and analytics. “We want to be able to show, ‘Here are the ways AI can be used appropriately, and here’s what you should be doing on your own.’ It’s about making sure students remain the authors of their own work.”

Castillo said that kind of guidance is badly needed. She’s concerned that schools with greater resources will be able to incorporate AI more thoughtfully into the classroom, educating students in AI techniques that aid learning instead of shortcut it, while overburdened public schools like hers will be left with a more ad-hoc approach.

“I think the digital divide is only becoming wider,” Castillo said. “It’s a bigger gulf between the haves and have-nots in the digital realm right now.”