AI Chatbot for Los Angeles Schools Fallsfleet

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An AI platform called Ed was supposed to be an “educational friend” for half a million students in Los Angeles public schools. In typed chats, Ed will direct students to academic and mental health resources, or tell parents if their children attended class that day, and provide their latest test scores. Ed will even be able to detect and respond to emotions such as hostility, happiness and sadness.

Alberto Carvalho, the district's superintendent, spoke boldly of Ed. In an April speech promoting the software, he promised it would “democratize” and “transform education.” In response to AI skeptics, he asked, “Why not allow this edutainment approach to capture and attract their attention, be the stimulus?”

A seventh-grade girl who tested the chatbot — in the form of a smiling, animated sun — reported, “I think Ed likes me,” Mr. Carvalho said.

Los Angeles agreed to pay startup company AllHere up to $6 million to develop the ad, a small fraction of the district's $18 billion annual budget. But just two months after Mr. Carvalho's presentation at a groundbreaking tech conference in April, Allhair's founder and chief executive left his role, and the company laid off most of its staff. AllHer posted on its website that the furloughs are due to “our current financial situation.”

AI companies are marketing themselves heavily to schools, which spend tens of billions of dollars annually on the technology. But AllHere's sudden debacle underscores some of the dangers of investing taxpayer dollars in artificial intelligence, a technology with great potential but little track record, especially when it comes to children. There are many complex issues at play, including the privacy of student data and the accuracy of any information presented by chatbots. And AI could also run counter to a growing interest from education leaders and parents — reducing kids' screen time.

Natalie Millman, a professor of educational technology at George Washington University, said she often advises schools to take a “wait and see” approach to purchasing new technology. While AI is worth using and testing, he said, he cautioned about schools “talking cynically about this wonderful tool. It has limitations, and we need to make sure That we are critical of what it can do, and its potential for harm and misinformation.”

AllHer did not respond to interview requests or written inquiries.

In a statement, Bert Vaughan, a spokesman for the Los Angeles School District, said there was a difference between “engaged students using phones during the school day” and students using laptops or tablets to interact with the ed platform. Differentiated, which he said is “intended to provide individualized educational pathways to address student learning.”

Anthony Aguilar, chief of special education for the district, said that despite AllHere's demise, a cut-down version of Ed remains accessible to families in the district's 100 “priority” schools, whose students have academic and attendance difficulties. is facing

But that software isn't a sophisticated, interactive chatbot. It's a website that collects information from several other apps that the district uses to track assignments, grades and support services. Students using the site can also complete some learning activities on the platform, such as math problems.

Mr. Aguilar said the Ad chatbot promoted by Mr. Carvalho had been tested with students ages 14 and older, but was taken offline to improve how it responded to user questions. Is. The goal is to have the chatbot available in September, a challenge that AllHere had to provide ongoing technical support and training to school staff, per its contract with the district. The district said it hopes AllHer will be acquired and the new owner will continue services.

Mr. Aguilar said the idea for the software originated with the district, as part of Mr. Carvalho's plan to help students recover from the academic and emotional impact of the pandemic.

AllHer won a competitive bidding process to build it, Mr. Aguilar said.

But the project represented a broad and unusual challenge for the startup, known as a provider of automated text messages from schools to families.

According to Crunchbase, AllHer received $12 million in venture capital funding. Its founder and chief executive, Joanna Smith-Griffin, now 33, was featured in Forbes, CBS and other media outlets telling a compelling story. As a former educator whose own students were often absent, she said, she founded AllHere in 2016 to help solve the problem.

Automated text messaging seemed to meet the moment when the CoVID-19 pandemic began, and chronic absenteeism became a national crisis. In the spring of 2020, AllHere acquired technology developed by economist and educational technology expert Peter Bergman. It enabled schools to send “nudges” to parents via text messages about attendance, missing assignments, grades and other issues.

Ms. Smith-Griffin often spoke about founding AllHere at Harvard Innovation Labs, a university program to support student entrepreneurs. Ms. Smith-Griffin became involved with the program when she was an undergraduate and then a graduate student at the Harvard Extension School, according to Matt Segneri, the labs' executive director.

Like many small startups, the company changed its mission over time. Last year, AllHere started talking more about an “AI-powered intuitive chatbot.” The company said AllHere will provide schools with artificial intelligence as well as a “human eye,” meaning human moderators will oversee the AI ​​to ensure safety and security — a potential A costly, labor-intensive proposition.

Stephen Aguilar, a professor of education at the University of Southern California – no relation to Mr. Aguilar of the Los Angeles schools – said it was a “fairly common problem” for school technology efforts to fail. He previously worked as a developer of educational software, including some projects that did not deliver as promised.

“Districts have a lot of complex needs and a lot of safety concerns,” he said. “But they often lack the technical expertise to really test what they're buying.”

Getting into AI isn't the first time Los Angeles has made a big bet on educational technology with questionable returns. Beginning in 2013, under a former superintendent, the district spent tens of millions of dollars buying iPads preloaded with curriculum content, but the effort was plagued by security concerns and technical glitches.

In an April speech by Mr. Carvalho at a conference co-sponsored by Arizona State University and GSV Ventures, a venture capital firm, he said the ad chatbot could measure test scores, mental health, physical health and family socioeconomic status. will have access to student data related to

Ms. Smith-Griffin joined him on stage to explain that student data would remain in a “walled garden” accessible only within the “ed ecosystem.”

Ms. Smith Griffin did not respond to interview requests. The district will protect the privacy and security of data on the platform “regardless of what happens with AllHere as a company,” said Mr. Vaughn of the Los Angeles schools.

In April, AllHer said it served 9,100 schools in 36 states. Some of AllHere's other school district contracts, in the five-figure range, were smaller than its deal with Los Angeles, which already earned the company more than $2 million, reports The74, an education news site. Profit was earned.

Some customers outside of Los Angeles have reported that the company's services are essentially down.

Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland learned from AllHere on June 18 that “effective immediately” the startup will no longer be able to provide its text messaging service, a district spokeswoman said, due to “unforeseen financial circumstances.” because.

Susan C. Beachy. participated in the research.

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