DUSD pilot program launches AI teaching aid

Dinuba Unified Board of Trustees approves a pilot program that brings artificial intelligence into the classroom through a “walled garden” of information

Dinuba Unified Admin building looking north west.
Dinuba Unified Admin building looking north west.
Serena Bettis
Published October 19, 2023  • 
10:00 am

DINUBA – A handful of teachers at Dinuba Unified School District (DUSD) will test out a tool that brings artificial intelligence (AI) into the classroom in a controlled environment beginning in the spring semester. 

At its meeting Oct. 12, the DUSD Board of Trustees approved the purchase of 10 Merlyn Origin remote controls, an AI assistant produced by tech company Merlyn Minds, for a pilot program. DUSD Educational Technology Director Matt Gehrett said this program comes as the district searches for a way to use AI in the classroom effectively and carefully. 

“We’re just trying to embrace safely using artificial intelligence and instruction, so we’re experimenting with a variety of things,” Gehrett said. “We’re trying to give our kids a leg up as far as being able to use AI – not to cheat – but to learn and to be able to do activities where that will help them in tutoring or help fill in the gaps where they may not understand something.”

Gehrett said he came across Merlyn Minds at an education technology conference he attended over the summer and he liked what they are doing to incorporate AI technology into K-12 schools. He told the board that Ramon Rivera, DUSD director of information technology, had already approved the use of Merlyn, as had the district’s site technology specialists.

Site technology specialists are groups of teachers at DUSD schools who Gehrett said are “leading edge teachers” interested in trying out new technologies. After presenting Merlyn to them, he said they decided to write grant requests to the DUSD Student Foundation to be able to pay for a pilot program of the remote controls. 

The Merlyn Origin remote controls are still in the prototype phase and should be ready by December or January, Gehrett said. Once they are available, 10 teachers from Sierra Vista High School and three elementary sites will use them throughout the spring semester.

According to a requisition order for the remote controls, each remote itself costs $49 and the accompanying license for the AI software is $295. In total, the foundation — not the district — paid just under $3,500 for the pilot program.

Although the Merlyn presentation was originally planned as an informational item, the board moved to approve the purchase of the remote controls at the meeting. 

Board of Trustees President Ron Froese said that while the board doesn’t usually do that, it is allowed by law, and clarified that when informational items are presented, approving them immediately when there are no concerns regarding the item saves time; especially since the board will need to vote on them eventually.

How it works

The physical Merlyn Origin remote controls are similar in function and size to handheld presentation clickers. Rich Henderson, vice president of end user sales for Merlyn Minds, demonstrated for the board how teachers will be able to use the remotes to engage their class in activities and instruction.  

Henderson said the remotes will allow teachers to control the computer mouse, click through tabs on screen, create shortcuts to open various resources and use voice commands to activate the AI assistant. 

“The important thing that we want to do for teachers is to save them time and to allow them to move around their classroom; not be tied to the computer at the front of the classroom,” Henderson said.

Beyond just controlling a presentation, the Merlyn Origin remote is an AI assistant that will bring up information on a subject from websites or material the teacher has prepared. 

For example, Henderson said that a teacher could say into the remote, “What are some ways that humans could travel to Mars?” and Merlyn will open a generative AI chat platform that shows a few answers it has found. The chat platform can read results out loud, or the teacher can mute that function and read it themself. 

They could then use the remote to navigate through the information presented, view the source of the information, ask more questions or provide Merlyn with further directions, like telling it to go to a specific website or to open a presentation the teacher has stored in their Google Drive account. 

“Let’s say there’s something I wanted my students to follow up with,” Henderson said. “Maybe I want them to watch this video; I can click on this video and I can preview it in class. … Let’s say I want to send them on a class activity. This I could share with my class just by using my voice.” 

AI in the classroom

The topic of AI in education has come up frequently in learning environments, including K-12 schools and universities, throughout the last year. A particular topic of conversation in regards to AI in education is  concerns about academic integrity and information accuracy that the introduction of free text generators poses.

As an example, programs like ChatGPT use an artificial intelligence large language model to ingest information — typically by scanning all accessible content on the internet — and then answer questions or complete prompts from user input. A user could ask the chat for information on a subject, request that it write a poem with a specific structure or have a conversation with the tool. 

Alongside worries that the widespread availability of these chats would entice students to have their homework assignments generated is the fact that, oftentimes, tools like ChatGPT do not provide correct information, but assert it as fact regardless.

Among its many features, Gehrett said the best part about Merlyn Origin is that it uses AI in a way that ensures accuracy of information. Gehrett described it as a “walled garden” of information being presented through the AI assistant.

Instead of having the large language model ingest all possible information available, the Merlyn Origin prototype only uses open education resources (OER) materials, which are educational resources including textbooks, lesson plans and research materials that are free for anyone to access. 

While there are many types of OER materials as well, Merlyn has only incorporated K-12 materials into its prototype to make sure the content is what school districts need for their students. 

“This vision is that, with the state of California for example, we could ingest the textbooks, the curriculum standards, the actual curriculum, so that when teachers inquire using this tool, it would only present material that was approved for use in your district,” Henderson said.

The prototype will include more broad information, but if the pilot program goes well – and as Merlyn Minds develops the remote control – Henderson said they would be able to create a large language model specific to the district’s curriculum. 

Henderson said Merlyn Minds also worked with the University of California, Irvine, to research how using the remote control impacted classroom teachings. According to one study, 61% of teachers who used the Merlyn remote reported a reduction of technology-related stress after seven weeks of use. 

“The teachers really get excited about the ability to control things with their voice,” Gehrett said. “It’s like Alexa, but it’s Alexa for your classroom. … It allows them to be anywhere and use proximity in the classroom for classroom management, control the presentation (and) on the fly as the question comes up, find the information and share it.”

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter