Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

The Connecticut Department of Education is partnering with a tech company to bring artificial intelligence classrooms this upcoming school year. 

With AI tools such as ChatGPT bursting onto the scene, state education officials have decided to embrace the technology by partnering with Varsity Tutors, an online tutoring platform that has been serving school districts around the country for the past few years. The partnership aims to help combat learning loss caused by the coronavirus pandemic and bring tutoring assistance to students struggling academically. 

“There’s a number of concurrent challenges that schools are facing,” said Anthony Salcito, chief institution business officer of Varsity Tutors. “One, there’s tremendous pressure on teachers with teacher burnout, teacher retention, and teacher shortages that’s causing school district leaders, principals to struggle to find staff.”

“Another reality is that….the importance of individualizing instruction and learning is becoming critical,” he added. “Parents are demanding support for their child wherever they are at the learning environment, and that puts even added stress for teachers.” 

Salcito said the program will feature the use of artificial intelligence in its tutoring system to ensure that students are connected with the best tutor who can cater to their specifics needs. He also said they intend to use what is known as “generative AI” to design lesson plans for tutors. This type of specialization through AI aims to bring a change from the conventional teaching and learning model. It is meant to bring more equity to tutoring by connecting students and families who cannot access the additional help with tutors in a convenient and affordable way, something that Salcito describes as a “tremendous investment.”  

Salcito said states such Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Florida, and California have implemented similar programs in their school districts. He said Varsity Tutors has seen higher than 200% improvement during a school year with the additional tutoring. 

“What you’re doing with tutoring is often providing access to someone to help a student course-correct, help students have greater clarity and answering questions to get clarity on something that their educators shared,” he said. “And you’re building confidence that learners don’t fall behind, but it takes the village of the learning environments to support student instruction.” 

Varsity Tutors has already begun doing the work in Waterbury, Salcito said.

Michelle Eckler, supervisor for technology at Waterbury Public Schools, was optimistic about incorporating the technology into the classroom. 

“We are embracing it [AI],” she said. “Our goal is to use it as a teaching and learning tool. We trained all our administrators last week on a basic understanding of what it is and what it does. Our teachers are going to be trained…through a districtwide professional learning about it as well. And then we are in the process of looking at how we’re going to be able to give students more understanding of what it is and the power of it, and how they can use it for positive things versus just using it as a way to get out of doing something.” 

“In the ’80s when the internet first became that big thing, people were afraid of the internet,” she added. “Wikipedia came out and everybody was so afraid of Wikipedia. Now, we send people to Wikipedia as a first place to start their research process before they go and look for other places.

“I think the use of artificial intelligence in all its forms is like both of those and that right now, it’s newer and it’s still emerging. People tend to be afraid of things when they’re new and emerging, but it’s going to become part of what our students are going to experience when they leave public school and go into the work world.”

Panya Khattar, a junior at Avon High School, also believes that artificial intelligence should play an instrumental role in the teaching and learning process in the future. 

“AI helps liberate humans from repetitive tasks, improving society. The American educational system is outdated, making it a hindrance rather than an ally,” she wrote in an op-ed in the Hartford Courant this summer.

Panya said she believes that AI would not only help students by creating innovative solutions to their problems, but will help reduce the workload on teachers, thus creating a better classroom environment. 

“If you teach them [students] how to use it ethically since things are advancing, people will adapt to it better,” she said. 

Donato Davis is CT Mirror's 2023 Emma Bowen Summer Intern. He is a rising junior at the University of Connecticut. Before coming to CT Mirror he participated in a summer sports writing internship with BVM Sports, an online sports magazine based in Wisconsin where he interviewed and wrote articles about local athletes, teams, and coaches within Connecticut. He is also a news reporter at UCTV, UCONN's television news broadcast station.