A student uses the Amira software, an AI powered reading tutor, to practice reading
A student uses the Amira software, an AI powered reading tutor, to practice reading Credit: Amira Learning Inc.

Urban school districts such as Los Angeles, Baltimore and New York City moved quickly to block Chat GPT —an essay-writing online chatbot that recently took the internet by storm— on school devices and networks. These districts cited concerns over the software’s ability to aid students in cheating and plagiarism, as well as the safety and accuracy of the content it produces.

But Cleveland schools are approaching it differently. 

Rather than blocking artificial intelligence software, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District is beginning to experiment with different ways to incorporate it into learning and teaching.

“Instead [of blocking these technologies], the District is focused on helping students and adults recognize and use these tools as productivity tools, knowing they will exist in the world our graduates will be living in,” a statement from the district reads.

District CEO Eric Gordon compared the recent emergence of AI to the advent of smartphones and calculators. In a recent livestream, he said that none of this is going away anytime soon, and that Cleveland should stay ahead of the game to figure out how to use it constructively. 

“It is going to happen. And so the question is, how do we responsibly get in front of it?” he said.

The district has already started doing that by piloting a few select AI softwares in the classroom.

Meet Amira

Whenever Gordon talks about AI, he touts one specific technology he says the district has had success with. 

She’s an AI persona named Amira, aimed at improving literacy levels for students from kindergarten through third grade.

She appears as an animated figure wearing a skirt and green sweater, standing in front of a chalkboard in the upper right-hand corner of the student’s tablet or laptop screen. 

Amira listens to children read a passage out loud, analyzes their speech, and gives real-time feedback. 

A screenshot showing Amira in action, tracking a student's progress while reading a passage.
A screenshot showing Amira in action, tracking a student’s progress while reading a passage. Credit: Amira Learning

If the student mispronounces a word or makes a mistake, she will make a gesture with her hands and explain the issue, gently saying what the correct answer should be.

See Amira in action here.

Amira can be used in the classroom, as an independent work activity, but will also be available for students to use at home on their school-issued devices.

Gordon said CMSD is piloting the app in four schools this spring and that students seem to enjoy it. The district may expand the program to more schools next year. He clarified that this will accompany, not replace, in-person literacy instruction and tutoring.

Amira is an example of educational technology, or edtech for short, a growing field of technology aimed at improving teaching and learning. Amira was developed and tested at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which has a master’s program dedicated to edtech.

The City of Cleveland has proposed legislation that will use a portion of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act dollars to bring Amira district-wide. The legislation is still pending council approval.

AI for Teachers, too

CMSD is also currently experimenting with a small group of teachers in using AI to create unit and lesson plans

Gordon elaborated on this new development in his talk this week. The teachers were experimenting with asking an AI bot to develop lesson plans based on certain student and class profiles, topics, and other parameters. 

“They are showing how we can use it as a production tool,” he said.

Signal Cleveland asked CMSD for details on the specific software teachers are using but did not receive a response.

Signal Cleveland also reached out to Cleveland Teachers Union President Shari Obrenski, who said that while there have been no serious concerns from teachers on the topic yet, the “AI specter” is definitely on the horizon.

CEO Gordon said that AI and edtech are coming up in serious conversations around education across the country. He said CMSD will participate in a task force on the topic hosted by the Council of the Great City Schools, a national organization for urban school districts. The task force will develop guidance for school districts when it comes to responsibly using and monitoring new technologies.

What are the experts saying?

Some of the most common concerns regarding these technologies surround their collection and use of student data, and the fear that tech could replace good, interpersonal teaching. Signal Cleveland spoke with a few experts for some guidance on how school districts, teachers and parents should navigate this new age of technology in schools.

AI should supplement, not replace, good teaching

Gabriel Swarts, Associate Dean of Education at Baldwin Wallace University, whose research has focused on edtech and educational AI, said that teachers should handle the new technology in the same way they handle a new class schedule or a different quiz than they are used to using.

Professor Gabriel Swarts, associate Dean of education at Baldwin Wallace University. Credit: Baldwin Wallace University

Swarts told Signal Cleveland that programs like Amira should be used as tools for teaching, not as teaching replacements. And just like any other tool, such as a calculator, there are certain times where it makes sense to use it, and other times where it doesn’t.

“[Amira] may be good for sort of repeating vocabulary words, phonics instruction. You know, some of the basics… but sometimes you mean what you say and it’s asking you to correct something or put in a different word and that’s not the conversational tone that you want to take,” Swarts said.

But the bottom line, he said, is that the number one thing that advances student learning is a great teacher — one who can make the decisions about when and how to use the technology.

“Having a good teacher is much more important for districts to invest in. We can’t get caught up in technology replacing what a great teacher can do,” he said.

Teachers and districts need to be wary of data privacy 

Kris Astle, education strategist at the edtech company SMART Technologies, told Signal Cleveland that while apps like Amira can be powerful tools that can personalize learning, they are dependent on collecting tons of data from students. 

Kris Astle, education strategist for SMART Technologies. Credit: SMART Technologies.

This means there is potential risk for student addresses and grade information to be exposed or for contact information to be sold to third parties. 

“Our students aren’t in a position to advocate for themselves and often are not able to know if their data has been compromised until they are much older, so data security needs to be a major focus for teachers, education leaders and parents alike.”

Astle said that school districts, parents, and families can get a better idea of how safe an app is by researching the edtech companies using questions such as:

  •  Do they encrypt my product user data? (in transit and at rest)
  •  How long do they keep my data? What is my data used for?
  •  Can I request my data to be erased?
  •  Who are the employees, contractors and vendors that have access to my data?
  •  Are they part of the Student Privacy Pledge?

Astle also recommended that schools and families balance AI interaction, which can feel isolating to some students, with in-person activities with peers and caregivers.

AI and other edtech can help individualize education for students working at different levels

Cleveland State University professor Claire Hughes-Lynch said that AI and edtech can be a tool to help teachers adapt their curriculum to better serve students learning in different ways and at different speeds.

Cleveland State professor Claire Hughes-Lynch. Credit: Cleveland State University.

As a professor of Special, Gifted and Twice-Exceptional Education at CSU’s College of Education and Public Affairs, Hughes-Lynch has worked with different types of assistive and alternative classroom technology aimed to help students with a variety of disabilities.

“In the past 20 years there has been an enormous growth of this technology that’s become mainstream,” she said, “but it came out of disability technology.”

Hughes-Lynch told Signal Cleveland tech like Amira has the potential to help students at different reading levels because of the immediate feedback it provides.

“I can see really some powerful uses for it, especially since it’s tailored to each child as opposed to group instruction, where some children can be left out …I can see great promise with it for kids with dyslexia, or for kids who are talented in the area of reading and want to work ahead.”

Amira Learning’s webpage claims that in less than 10 minutes, Amira can screen a student for risk of dyslexia.

All these benefits aside, Hughes-Lynch said that an important connection can be lost while using technology like Amira, if it is being used as a teaching substitute. 

“We found during COVID, that computers just don’t really replicate teachers very well, that kids need a teacher and they need a relationship and a social-emotional connection to the content that they’re being provided. An avatar could be cute, but it’s not a relationship.”

K-12 Education Reporter (he/him)
Paul, a former City Year Cleveland AmeriCorps member based in a charter school, covered K-12 education for Signal Cleveland until August, 2023. Paul joined us from Cleveland Documenters, where he focused on creating infographics and civic tech to make public information more accessible. Paul is also a musician, photographer and graphic designer.