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Navigating generative AI with Copilot at South Staffordshire College

18 months into their journey with generative AI, the benefits of Microsoft Copilot are being felt in the classroom and beyond at South Staffordshire College.

When head of digital learning, Steve Wileman, started looking into generative AI as a tool to support staff workload, knowing where to start was the first hurdle he faced.

“The world of AI is a bit like the Wild West at the moment. No-one knows where anything is.”

Faced with a choice of which platform to use, Steve began weighing up the pros and cons of ChatGPT, TeacherMatic and Microsoft Copilot.

“ChatGPT seemed to be the main one that you heard about, but the issue we had was that we didn’t know where the data was kept.

“We felt that TeacherMatic had good answers for our questions around data security and, as a Microsoft institution, we knew that if we used Copilot our data would be stored in our account and wouldn’t go anywhere else.

“That made me feel a lot more secure.”

Getting started

Having ruled out ChatGPT due to these concerns, the college asked staff to start using both Copilot and Teachermatic. At a series of CPD sessions, they were talked through the core functionality of the tools and introduced to the possibilities of generating lesson plans, quizzes and more.

Straight away, it was clear that the differences between the two tools meant there were benefits to both.

“TeacherMatic has a lot of pre-designed prompts for things like lesson plans and schemes of work – which is great. Copilot is more freeform; you can ask it a series of questions and use it as a discovery tool, like how people use ChatGPT.

“We showed two methods of creating lesson plans: using TeacherMatic with the pre-designed prompts or going into Copilot and doing the same, but with a bit of extra prompt-engineering on our end to tell it what you wanted."

While both styles proved popular, a lot of staff quickly saw the benefit of the more prescriptive approach with Copilot.

“Lots of people really liked the freeform nature of Copilot and embraced it. They were able to upload things like awarding body specifications and ask it to generate lesson plans based around them.

“This was really helpful, especially in areas where there aren’t already resources created.”

Christmas cards, aliens and mock papers

With teachers starting to enjoy the benefits of Copilot, it soon became clear that there was an opportunity to get learners involved as well.

“Staff had been using AI to generate images for their lessons, and they started asking their students to do the same.”

This began with starter activities like designing festive images to use on Christmas cards, with learners being asked to put detailed written descriptions into Copilot to try and generate the image they had in mind.

It then advanced further, with Alison Fawdrey (a member of the digital team) playing a pivotal role in integrating Maths and English concepts seamlessly into the curriculum, creating innovative learning experiences.

One of her notable contributions was in English lessons, where students reading H. G. Wells’ classic ‘The War of the Worlds’ were asked to design their own alien using AI. Alison says:

“We encouraged learners to envision the aliens described in the book. Their vivid descriptions, totally over 200, were fed into Copilot – which then generated corresponding images.”

While for learners this felt like a fun activity, the underlying effect of what they were really doing was more significant. Steve added:

“Really what we were doing was showing them how to write more creatively. They quickly realised that the more descriptive they were with what they put in, the more they liked the end result.

“This showed them that being more creative produces a better output, and they started to apply that across their other studies too. The creativity and vocabulary they were using fell into their functional skills, and we started to see this coming out in mock papers and things like that, which was brilliant."

Looking ahead

The search for the right AI tool started with the goal of reducing staff workload, and while it’s certainly proved helpful in that regard, it’s important to note that this is just a starting point. Steve explains:

“It’s been really good for staff to feel they’re being supported with their prep at the end of a long day of six, seven hours of teaching.

“Copilot gives them a good starting point: they can type in a few sentences and be given a generated lesson suggestion which they can then contextualise and move forward with their own ideas.

“But it’s important for them to remember that this is a starting point, and it’s not going to do it all for you. Some people misinterpret the phenomenon of AI – you can’t just ask it for everything in one go.”

Looking ahead, there are plans for students at South Staffordshire to get more access to Copilot from September. For Steve, the positives of this far outweigh the negative perceptions some people have about learners using these tools.

“They’re going to need to be able to use AI in their jobs for the next thirty to forty years, so we’re trying to help them be as ready as they can be.

“Some people say it’s going to make them lazy, but I don’t see it that way. It gives people a starting point, and they’ll get to where they need to go more creatively and quickly because that starting point is there.

“We’ve all been there when you’re tired out and can’t figure out how to start something, and AI gives you that prompt and that way in. I think that’s what the students will see.

“AI is here to stay, so instead of focusing on the negatives let’s move forward with it and use it for its benefits.”

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