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Superintendent Carvalho continues problematic AI initiative despite collapse of technology company

Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Los Angeles schools, said he is moving forward with his artificial intelligence project – a platform to help students and families navigate the complexities of the school district – despite the collapse of the company that developed an AI chatbot.

In his first in-depth interview about the incidents, the Los Angeles schools superintendent described a fully functional AI-driven platform owned by the school district that currently has everything except a chatbot.

But parents and teachers are challenging that characterization because the platform is not available across the school system, marginalizing its defining feature. They said they had no idea how or how well it works, how to access it or what it is supposed to do. Their only information, they said, came from high-profile media events.

One parent said he found personal information about his daughter online and questioned the district’s handling of private data – although the district denies any connection between the leaked data and the AI ​​project or the Boston-based company AllHere, which developed the chatbot.

LA Unified said a former county contractor failed to delete private county data as required, and that stranded data was exposed in a data breach at another company. The county has not responded to questions about that data breach, including what information was compromised or how many people were affected. No notification was sent to affected families.

Carvalho has touted the chatbot, named “Ed,” as being able to answer school-related questions from teachers, parents and students by accessing the databases of every school district. This means the automated platform collects, processes and sends massive amounts of data from the country’s second-largest school system.

Officials said the chatbot has been disabled since June 14, when they learned that AllHere had laid off the “overwhelming majority” of its employees, an AllHere manager said in an email.

The district had paid AllHere $3 million for work completed under a contract worth up to $6 million over five years.

“I want to make one thing very clear: what was planned and promised – and the vision for this is mine, it is mine – has actually been implemented,” said Carvalho.

“Ed is more than just a chatbot,” he added.

Read more: LAUSD puts its hyped AI chatbot to help students on hold after the company that developed it collapses

Carvalho said the district will decide how to replace AllHere, assess potential risks associated with AllHere’s collapse and gradually roll out the AI ​​platform to all schools, restore the chatbot and expand the system’s features, which is still in development.

Investigators working for the school system’s inspector general conducted a video interview on July 2 with Chris Whiteley, former senior director of software engineering at AllHere, according to a report by education news site The 74. Whiteley detailed how his former employer allegedly violated both industry standards and the district’s own policies when handling student data.

Carvalho said he had no comment on Whiteley’s allegations, but added the district was not aware of any data breach related to AllHere.

In published reports, Whiteley did not claim that data theft had occurred, only that his former company’s practices had created an unreasonable risk.

AllHere did not respond to a request for comment.

“School of the One”

Carvalho emphasized that the Ed platform was created as a means of creating an Individual Acceleration Plan (IAP) for each student.

Carvalho called this a groundbreaking achievement and said that an IAP would become a tailored academic strategy. In a TEDTalk, Carvalho described the effort as “School for one” for every student.

“Ed was designed to be an individualized acceleration platform that takes all the data we have on students, all the partners we have around curriculum, support, all the attendance data, everything about the individual child, and is able to process that data, analyze it, and then create a plan for the individual student. That’s what the AI ​​does,” Carvalho told the Times.

“The chatbot is just a small feature,” he said. “It’s the most exciting thing, by the way, because it’s what people associate with AI, but the stupid person is the one who replaces the chatbot with IAP.”

“A chatbot is nothing more than a means of communication. IAP is something much bigger.”

The star of the show, however, was the chatbot – both in Carvalho’s speech at the opening of the last school year and at a much-noticed official launch in March.

The chatbot was visually represented as a grinning sun – often with sunglasses.

Read more: LAUSD approves $18.4 billion budget amid concerns about police, arts and future

After learning about the problems at AllHere, “we made the decision within a matter of days – and it was very, very quick – to actually disable the chatbot,” Carvalho said. “We had no concerns about whether the chatbot would work or not. It works. Our concerns were about something that was very important to me: my requirement that there would always be a human in the loop. And given the staff cuts we learned about, we wanted to play it safe.”

By “human in the loop,” Carvalho meant human oversight of what the automated chatbot would do and say. County officials did not clarify how much oversight would have been provided by AllHere, a small company with different clients and different products.

Ongoing maintenance of the system is also a problem, said Carvalho.

“Until back-of-the-house support is stabilized, this feature will be disabled,” Carvalho said.

Without the chatbot, the Ed landing page looks more like a traditional online resource – updated and expanded – with links and dropboxes.

Invisible acceleration plan

The Individual Acceleration Plan is not a report that can be printed out or viewed online.

Deputy Superintendent Karla Estrada explained in an interview that the IAP is actually invisible to the user.

The IAP runs in the background and forms the basis for computer-generated academic recommendations for a student, offering reading suggestions or math topics to work on.

“It’s not like a traditional plan written on a piece of paper,” Estrada said. “It’s meant to work dynamically with the student and be based on their needs and ongoing performance data.”

She added: “The thing is, students don’t want to feel like they’re being put on a performance plan. That’s not how they want to feel. They want to get that information and know what they need to do to improve, but they don’t want to hear, ‘You’re underperforming in these areas. So you need to improve.’ They want to understand, ‘How can I just keep improving?'”

Great concerns

There is great confusion about what should improve or replace the education system.

For example, the district has a parent portal and a separate site where students log in for school work and communication with teachers. Will Ed replace those sites or add another layer before users get to where they want to go?

What Ed can and cannot do remains unclear.

One example Carvalho gave in March was the ability to use Ed to track the school bus and its estimated time of arrival. And Ed would give a student a friendly nudge if they were late for the bus recently. But Ed can’t do those things yet.

That role is “on the waiting list” of tasks to be done, Estrada said. The district has not yet provided a list of things Ed can and cannot do.

Carvalho and his team face major challenges.

Read more: LAUSD approves cell phone ban, Newsom calls for statewide action

District officials said Ed was initially rolled out this spring to the district’s 100 most “fragile” schools – an effort to provide the new service where it is most needed to help with academic performance, attendance issues and mental health problems.

But that means the vast majority of the nearly 1,000 campuses and more than 400,000 students do not have this access.

“We have heard nothing other than the announcement in the media a few months ago,” said teacher Kim Knapp Soderstrom. “No information, explanations or training.”

“As far as I know, our school does not use this AI portal/platform,” said Jennifer Buscher, mother of an elementary school student at a Westchester elementary school. “I haven’t heard anything.”

Evelyn Aleman coordinates the meetings for Our Voice, an organization that targets low-income Spanish-speaking parents. She said her participants “say they don’t know anything about technology-based portals, programs, AI, chatbots, etc. Even parents who run parent centers tell me they don’t know anything about it.”

“It’s as if we live in two different universes with LAUSD: one in which district leaders announce technological advances with great fanfare, and the other in which Latino and indigenous immigrant parents … are still trying to access and learn basic new technologies and advocate for more pressing issues like literacy, more mental health resources and school safety – to name a few.”

Carvalho and his team are confident that Ed – who reportedly speaks 100 languages ​​– will facilitate meaningful engagement.

Mother Elizabeth Bannister, who has not received any information from the district, also expressed concern about possible data protection violations.

Father and general contractor Steve Regen said he found private information about his daughter on the dark web.

“I really don’t care that this information came from a ‘cloud storage device managed by a former third-party vendor,'” he wrote in an email to district officials. “What I do care about is that LAUSD voluntarily gave this ‘vendor’ full, unrestricted access to our children’s information.”

Regen said the IT team he works with found the full names, birth dates and home addresses, as well as all phone numbers and email addresses associated with his daughter and her friends’ LAUSD registration.

“In order to protect their children, parents have a right to be informed of the seriousness of this violation,” he told the Times.

In a general response, the Regen district said, “We are working to determine what information is involved in this incident. If we determine that this is anyone’s personal information, we will notify those individuals in accordance with applicable laws.”

In a statement, district officials said they had cooperated with investigators and followed the highest standards of privacy.

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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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