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Microsoft, Google-backed group wants to boost AI education in low-income schools

March 7, 2023 Updated Wed., March 8, 2023 at 8:54 p.m.

An attendee interacts with the AI-powered Microsoft Bing search engine and Edge browser during an event at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., on Feb. 7.  (Chona Kasinger/Bloomberg)
An attendee interacts with the AI-powered Microsoft Bing search engine and Edge browser during an event at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., on Feb. 7. (Chona Kasinger/Bloomberg)
By Dina Bass Bloomberg

With students taking advantage of ChatGPT for homework and term papers, there’s a lot of hand-wringing about whether artificial-intelligence tools are appropriate for school. Alex Kotran said his group wants to make sure those tools are used even more.

Kotran is the chief executive officer of the AI Education Project, or aiEDU, a nonprofit backed by companies such as Microsoft, Alphabet’s Google, OpenAI and AT&T, that provides free materials and teacher training to boost AI understanding in school districts. The idea is to teach kids about the technology, its limits and promise, and prepare them for jobs where they’ll need to use AI.

The group on Tuesday announced a national call for AI education with an expanded list of backers and partner schools at the South by Southwest EDU conference in Austin, Texas. So far, aiEDU has reached 100,000 students and has relationships with districts representing 1.5 million low-income and underserved kids across the country.

The nonprofit was founded in 2019, and Kotran thought it would take a few years before there was widespread demand from educators for these kinds of programs. “We were kind of wearing the T-shirt before the band was cool,” he said. Instead the rapid increase in interest in generative AI with the popularity of programs like OpenAI’s chatbot and Dall-E, its tool for digital images, has dramatically boosted demand, and the group could use more funding, he said.

The focus is on marginalized regions and students, especially because some of those areas are the most likely to be negatively affected by automation and a gap in skills caused by AI. In 2018, Kotran said he was in San Francisco and struck by all the talk of AI changing the future of work, while his mother, a public school teacher in Akron, Ohio, commented that she wished her students were learning about the technology.

“It just was startling to me that in Akron, Ohio, which is on the Brookings Institution list of 20 cities most at risk for automation job displacement, how’s it possible that high school students aren’t learning about the future of work, let alone artificial intelligence,” he said. He found that throughout the U.S. there was no specific curriculum or requirement to learn about AI.

Other backers include Nvidia, Intel, GSV Ventures, Verizon Communications and nonprofits such as Teach for America and the Boys and Girls Club.

Kotran’s group is working with Educational Service Centers – groups of school districts – serving 420,000 students in Texas, 300,000 in Wisconsin and 250,000 in Ohio, as well as public school districts in Atlanta, Spokane and Anaheim, California. The goal is to make sure these students are ready for jobs that in just a few years may require or prefer experience with AI programs.

“People may not be replaced by AI directly, but people will be replaced by people that are proficient users of artificial intelligence,” Kotran said. “So students who have no experience or no knowledge of how to use a tool, have no experience creating projects with generative AI, are going to totally be out classed by students who have.”

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