In Classrooms, Teachers Put A.I. Tutoring Bots to the Test

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On a recent morning, Cheryl Drakeford, a third-grade teacher at First Avenue Elementary School in Newark, projected a challenging math question on her classroom’s whiteboard: “What fraction of the letters in the word MATHEMATICIAN are consonants?”

Ms. Drakeford knew that “consonant” might be an unfamiliar word to some students. So she suggested they ask Khanmigo, a new tutoring bot that uses artificial intelligence, for help.

She paused for a minute while about 15 schoolchildren dutifully typed the same question — “What are consonants?” — into their math software. Then she asked the third-graders to share the tutoring bot’s answer.

“Consonants are the letters in the alphabet that are not vowels,” one student read aloud. “The vowels are A, E, I, O and U. Consonants are all the other letters.”

Tech industry hype and doomsday prophesies around A.I.-enhanced chatbots like ChatGPT sent many schools scrambling this year to block or limit the use of the tools in classrooms. Newark Public Schools is taking a different approach. It is one of the first school systems in the United States to pilot test Khanmigo, an automated teaching aid developed by Khan Academy, an education nonprofit whose online lessons are used by hundreds of districts.

Newark has essentially volunteered to be a guinea pig for public schools across the country that are trying to distinguish the practical use of new A.I.-assisted tutoring bots from their marketing promises.

Proponents contend that classroom chatbots could democratize the idea of tutoring by automatically customizing responses to students, allowing them to work on lessons at their own pace. Critics warn that the bots, which are trained on vast databases of texts, can fabricate plausible-sounding misinformation — making them a risky bet for schools.

Officials in Newark, the largest district in New Jersey, said they were cautiously testing the tutoring bot in three schools. Their findings could influence districts across the United States that are vetting A.I. tools this summer for the upcoming school year.

“It’s important to introduce our students to it, because it’s not going away,” Timothy Nellegar, the director of educational technology at Newark Public Schools, said of A.I.-assisted technology. “But we need to figure out how it works, the risks, the good and the bad.”

Khan Academy is among a handful of online learning companies that have created new tutoring bots based on language models developed by OpenAI, the research lab behind ChatGPT. Khan Academy, whose high-level tech donors include Google, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Elon Musk Foundation, received access to the A.I. models last year.

Designed specifically for schools, the tutoring bot often takes students through the sequential steps needed to solve a problem.

When Khan Academy began looking for districts to pilot test its experimental tutorbot this spring, Newark volunteered. A number of local elementary schools were already using the education organization’s online math lessons as a way to track students’ mastery of concepts like grouping numbers. And the A.I. tool would be free for those schools during the initial pilot-testing phase.

District officials said they wanted to see if Khanmigo could enhance student engagement and math learning. Schools like First Avenue, attended by many children from lower-income families, were also eager to give their students an early opportunity to try a new A.I.-assisted teaching aid.

Districts like Newark that use Khan Academy’s online lessons, analytics and other school services — which do not include Khanmigo — pay an annual fee of $10 per student. Participating districts that want to pilot test Khanmigo for the upcoming school year will pay an additional fee of $60 per student, the nonprofit said, noting that computing costs for the A.I. models were “significant.”

Newark students began using Khan’s automated teaching aid in May. The reviews have so far been mixed.

One recent morning, sixth graders at First Avenue Elementary were working on a statistics assignment that involved developing their own consumer surveys. Their teacher, Tito Rodriguez, suggested the students start by asking Khanmigo two background questions: What is a survey? What makes a question statistical?

Mr. Rodriguez described the bot as a useful “co-teacher” that allowed him to devote extra time to children who needed guidance while enabling more self-driven students to plow ahead.

“Now they don’t have to wait for Mr. Rodriguez,” he said. “They can ask Khanmigo.”

Down the hall in Ms. Drakeford’s math class, the bot’s responses to students sometimes seemed less like suggestions and more like direct answers.

When students asked Khanmigo the fraction question posted on the classroom’s white board, the bot answered that the word “mathematician” contained 13 letters and that seven of those letters were consonants. That meant the fraction of consonants was seven out of 13, the bot wrote, or 7/13.

“That’s our biggest concern, that too much of the thinking work is going through Khanmigo,” said Alan Usherenko, the district’s special assistant for schools, including First Avenue, in Newark’s North Ward. The district did not want the bot to lead students through a problem step by step, he said, adding, “We want them to know how to tackle the problem themselves, to use their critical thinking skills.”

In an email, Khan Academy said students often needed initial support getting through problem-solving steps, and practicing could help them learn to automatically go through the steps, without assistance.

The group added that the tutoring bot was designed to help students solve problems, not give them the answers. But in the case of the fraction problem in Newark, the organization said, Khanmigo “helped too much, too fast.”

“Our engineering team corrected the A.I. a few weeks ago,” Khan Academy said in an email on Tuesday, “so that it no longer gives the answer to this question.”

On Wednesday, a reporter asked Khanmigo the same fraction question. In student mode, the tutoring bot explained the steps and then directly provided the answer: “the fraction of consonants in the word ‘MATHEMATICIAN’ is 7/13.”

In teacher mode, which is designed to walk educators through problems and answers, the bot provided a different — incorrect — response. Khanmigo said erroneously that there were eight consonants in the word “mathematician.” That led the bot to provide a wrong answer: “8 consonants/ 14 total letters = 8/14”

In an email, Khan Academy said that it had fixed the issue within its “tutor me: math and science” section for students, noting that the reporter had asked a question in a different part of the site. “As for the teacher mode giving the incorrect answer,” the email said, “sometimes Khanmigo makes mistakes.”

Even so, Mr. Usherenko said he was hopeful. The district had suggested to Khan Academy that, rather than relying on students to ask Khanmigo the right questions, it would be more helpful if the bot asked students open-ended questions and analyzed their responses.

“It’s not where I want it yet,” Mr. Usherenko said of Khanmigo. “But when it can find students’ misconceptions, that will be a game changer.”

Khan Academy said that the tutoring bot often asked students open-ended questions and that the group was working on getting the A.I. models to accurately identify misconceptions. The nonprofit added that it was continuing to improve Khanmigo with feedback from school districts.

Whether schools will be able to afford A.I.-assisted tutorbots remains to be seen.

Khan Academy said that it would offer a discount for districts in which more than half of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. Even so, the financial hurdles suggest that A.I.-enhanced classroom chatbots are unlikely to democratize tutoring any time soon.

Mr. Nellegar, Newark’s ed tech director, said his district was looking for outside funding to help cover the cost of Khanmigo this fall.

“The long-term cost of A.I. is a concern for us,” he said.

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