Educators were among the most concerned demographic groups when the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT made its public debut less than a year-and-a-half ago.

The query-driven platform, trained on vast amounts of data culled from the internet, appeared to have accomplished a quantum leap in emulating humanlike responses to questions and prompts. And it grew its fanbase at a record clip, attracting an estimated 100 million users just two months after its launch, making it, at the time, the fastest-growing internet app ever.

But that same power to recall ingested information (accurate or otherwise) coupled with its uncanny parroting ability also made the new tool a veritable homework machine, able to churn out student research papers, solve math problems, pen snappy college entrance essays and much more.

Just weeks after ChatGPT creator OpenAI kicked open the doors to public access in November 2022, Wharton School of Business associate professor Ethan Mollick tweeted that “AI has basically ruined homework” but qualified his declaration with “but it has positives too.”

Is AI education’s friend or foe?

Jordan School District superintendent Anthony Godfrey was among education professionals who, at the time lacking sufficient information to assess the potential harms of ChatGPT and other emerging AI platforms, found themselves obligated to limit school-based access to the new tools.

“Artificial intelligence was all the buzz,” Godfrey said. “But we had to close it down in our district and did not allow access to ChatGPT ... because we didn’t know what problems it might cause for our students or our digital infrastructure.”

Caleb Hicks, School AI founder, and Cahlan Sharp, School AI CTO, work at School AI headquarters in Lehi on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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But Godfrey kept a close eye on the progression of AI-driven tools, recognizing that eventually the technology would lead to applications aiming to “harness what artificial intelligence could do for students and teachers.”

Then he ran into veteran Utah teacher Caleb Hicks at an education conference and heard about Hicks’ startup, SchoolAI.

Godfrey was intrigued by what he heard from Hicks, particularly about SchoolAI’s robust safety protocols and the platform’s powerful tools for both students and teachers. And he said the way the platform functions reflects that it isn’t just the product of random software engineering but one built by actual educators.

That’s the kind of response Hicks and his team have been aiming for since launching SchoolAI last summer.

Teachers helping teachers

“We like to say we’re built by teachers, for teachers,” Hicks said. “Many of the people on our team are former teachers and we’re meeting regularly with a community of current teachers that are using our product in new and interesting ways. There’s a big difference between our approach and someone trying to design education tools that have never been in a classroom.”

SchoolAI touts its offerings of more than 1,000 activities with AI tutors, interactive games, simulations, well-being check-ins and a library of grade- and subject-specific activities. Teachers using the platform also receive the benefits of dashboards with real-time feedback and moderation, according to the company, so they can easily track student progress and develop tailored learning plans to meet students where they are.

Caleb Hicks, School AI founder, works at School AI headquarters in Lehi on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Hicks is well familiar with the daily challenges teachers face, some of whom are tasked with teaching new lessons every day to groups of 30 or more students that cycle through their classrooms every hour or hour-and-a-half.

“We all think of teachers working with 20 to 25 students at a time — already a high bar — when in reality most teachers are working with many, many more,” Hicks said. “We built SchoolAI because we see an important opportunity to bring AI into classrooms in a safe and secure way that benefits teachers and students in a manner parents approve.”

Hicks said the decision Godfrey and many other school administrators made to limit access to new AI-powered tools was the right one at the time. But SchoolAI, which is powered by ChatGPT and other AI-based engines, has harnessed the capabilities of artificial intelligence while building in critical safeguards and developing tools that meet the evolving needs of students and teachers.

“While many school districts have banned ChatGPT, we’ve found they’re eager to adopt SchoolAI in their classrooms once they see an AI-driven interface that enables teachers and students to connect with daily check-ins, tailored tutoring, simulations and games that adapt to every student’s interests and skill level,” Hicks said.

SchoolAI in the trenches

Payson High School English teacher Sam McGrath said the arrival of ChatGPT was a bombshell that drove a level of panic among teachers and parents about what the tool might portend for teacher-based learning and how it could be used as a crutch by students who may turn to it for easy solutions to completing homework assignments.

But McGrath saw the positive potential early on.

“As I explored ChatGPT my big thing was thinking about how I could put AI in the hands of students in a way that included appropriate boundaries and safety measures,” McGrath said.

That opportunity arrived when his district obtained a limited number of SchoolAI licenses to allow teachers who were interested in giving the platform a tryout.

Caleb Hicks, School AI founder, works at School AI headquarters in Lehi on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

McGrath said he’s brought SchoolAI onboard as a tool that allows him to customize exercises specifically for students’ various interests and abilities while targeting specific lessons and concepts.

He has also added it as a portal for students to get input on their own writing, in a way that guides the process without doing the work for the students.

“It’s a space where they can get immediate feedback and allows me to monitor the process and offer additional guidance,” McGrath said.

He has also used SchoolAI features to add novel curriculum exercises, like creating a mock trial plan for exploring a reading assignment from one of his classes, the Reginald Rose novel, “Twelve Angry Men.”

McGrath also appreciates the opportunity to incorporate SchoolAI usage as a path to familiarize students with AI tools, which he sees as a critical knowledge set for the future workplace.

“I feel like we owe it to our students to offer some instructions on how to use these tools before they enter the professional world,” McGrath said. “It’s about safety and about how to best use these tools.”

AI in the workplace and the classroom

Godfrey also believes that AI is set to remake the work world and sees the technology as a tool with the potential to provide a powerful enhancement for both teachers and learners.

To that end, the Jordan School District announced Wednesday it is making SchoolAI available in its 67 schools which are home to 3,350 educators and more than 57,800 students.

Nationwide, 1,500 school districts have adopted SchoolAI’s platform, totaling more than 20,000 teachers across and 100,000 students in Utah, New York, Ohio and Connecticut, according to the company.

“The education of our future generations is critically important; and to say our teachers are hard working and stretched in their classrooms to meet the needs of each student is an understatement,” Godfrey said in a press statement. “Partnering with SchoolAI allows us to introduce a tool in the classroom that lets teachers get valuable insights into their students’ preparedness level for each subject, making it easy to assist them in a personalized way that wasn’t possible before. It does all of this in a scalable format that ensures our teachers can do more amazing work without being overburdened or burnt out.” 

Godfrey said Jordan District teachers have had the opportunity to test SchoolAI, and the decision to offer the platform districtwide was the result of a competitive process in which the company distinguished itself as “the clear front-runner.”

He also noted overwhelmingly positive reviews from the teachers who have used the platform and “enthusiastic” support from members of the district’s community school councils.

Godfrey underscored his belief that artificial intelligence tools like SchoolAI are not on a path to replace teachers but rather create opportunities for teachers to “save time on the things they already do and make things possible that they would never be able to do, no matter how proficient they are.”

“Teachers can never be replaced,” Godfrey said. “The relationship between teachers and students is essential. SchoolAI enhances that as an effective teacher’s aid and student tutor.”