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TRECA Digital Academy: A Virtual K-12 School’s Experience With AI 

  • 5 Min Read

Kristina McLaughlin, assistant director of curriculum and CTE at TRECA Digital Academy, discusses testing D2L’s AI tools and the future of AI in education.


Kristina McLaughlin is the assistant director of curriculum and CTE at TRECA Digital Academy, a virtual public school in Ohio. She is also a high school English teacher. Below, Kristina shares her thoughts on TRECA’s diverse student population, what it’s been like testing D2L’s generative AI tools, and how she feels about the future of AI in education. 

TRECA Digital Academy Serves Students Across Ohio 

We’re a K-12 public school and follow the same rules as brick-and-mortar schools but have added virtual requirements as well, such as how many hours a day a student must be in class. 

We’re classified as a dropout prevention and recovery school. We primarily work with older students missing credits, but their reasons for choosing TRECA vary. 

For example, in neighborhoods where there’s a high incidence of violence, parents may choose to enroll their kids in TRECA because they don’t want them to leave the house. 

We also serve students who are medically fragile. One of our students has Crohn’s disease, which can be quite stressful to deal with at a brick-and-mortar school. By working from home asynchronously, he’s able to better manage it. His siblings also joined TRECA, and they’re all flourishing academically. 

Other families choose us because it fits their children’s lifestyle. We’ve had students on international athletic teams and another student was touring with a heavy metal band. What they have in common is they appreciate the flexibility that virtual school offers. It allows them to keep up with their pursuits while also completing their high school education. 

I Joined TRECA in 2001 to Teach High School English 

I’ve seen everything grow and change, including how we deliver virtual learning. From the very early days where we were building web pages and kids were emailing us assignments, to the present. Now, we have this learning management system (LMS) with features like conditional releases. There are so many fun things you can do. It’s a different world. 

We’ve been using D2L Brightspace since 2015. Our courses are all 100% online and primarily asynchronous. Every teacher offers live, virtual sessions, but in the lower elementary years, attendance for these sessions is a requirement. All our courses are designed asynchronously in Brightspace. 

I’m Currently the Assistant Director of Curriculum and CTE 

I create all the course shells for teachers and keep everything organized. I also work with our systems teams (we have our own student information system). 

I have three instructional coaches I work with to support our teachers. We each teach one course per year. I think it’s important to use our backgrounds as qualified teachers because by using the LMS daily, we know all the ins and outs and can see what the experience is like firsthand. It also gives us the opportunity to try new things. 

TRECA Trials D2L Lumi 

We’ve been using Lumi in Brightspace to generate assessment items in quizzes since the fall of 2023. Teachers like how it helps them think differently, offering question possibilities that they may not have thought of without the assistance of generative AI. 

I have one teacher who was an ecology researcher before joining TRECA. It was amazing for her to have access to these tools because she’s so used to thinking like a science researcher. What she found very beneficial about AI was that it served as good question inspiration. 

Our other teachers echo this. The AI tools take some of the pressure off teachers, giving them an inspirational starting point that then helps them think a little more broadly. 

We’re also thinking about how these tools change the student experience and how they’re going to be using AI. One of the other English teachers and I were chatting about how neat it would be to use AI in creative writing. We could teach students how to put in a prompt or upload some content, let generative AI do its thing, and then analyze the results. 

Cheating in the Age Of AI 

A lot of our teachers are worried about plagiarism and are wondering how to either stop it from happening in the first place or catch it if it does occur. My personal view is that if we don’t teach our students how to use these tools and always come at them from a punitive point of view, it won’t benefit anyone in the long run. 

One of our aims is to figure out a positive way of using AI with students, instead of focusing on the negative (like cheating). The harder approach is to take a step back and recognize that cheating could be a signifier of students not being interested in the work. That forces the educator to ask, “What is it about the assignment that they would rather cheat than do the work?” I think we need to figure out why they’re cheating, what’s the root cause—and again, that’s not an easy approach. But we owe it to our students. We have a responsibility to teach them how to use AI because it’s not going away. 

Hopes for the Future 

Speaking as an English teacher, I don’t want to use AI to grade essays. I’d rather figure out a way to use it to dive deeper into the data I’m collecting. 

For example: If I have students reading something and then answering a series of auto-graded and partially auto-graded questions, I would love for AI to analyze the different answers a student has entered and say, “This student is struggling, or appears to be struggling, with vocabulary. They seem to be struggling with vocabulary because this question, this question, and this question are vocabulary heavy.” 

That’s what I want AI to be able to do for me, because that’s what’s labor-intensive as an English teacher. It’s trying to connect dots between where a student is struggling the most and how you can help. It can take a lot of time and it’s one area where I think AI could be very useful. 

My Biggest Concern About AI 

I don’t want to lose the human part of teaching. I don’t want AI to grade essays or to complete a rubric. It misses the empathy of what teaching is and being able to connect with kids because it’s only a surface level connection. It doesn’t know how to read between the lines or create authentic, trustworthy relationships with students. 

AI Could Nudge Teachers Out of Their Comfort Zones 

This isn’t true of all teachers, but we do tend to know what we like, we’ve seen what works and doesn’t, and so we stick with what’s tried and tested. But I think we do have to break out of what’s familiar, if only to build different connections with students. 

That’s where AI could help. It can nudge us towards breaking down those comfort zones which could ultimately open new pathways for creativity and teaching. 

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

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Table of Contents

  1. TRECA Digital Academy Serves Students Across Ohio 
  2. I Joined TRECA in 2001 to Teach High School English 
  3. I’m Currently the Assistant Director of Curriculum and CTE 
  4. TRECA Trials D2L Lumi 
  5. Cheating in the Age Of AI 
  6. Hopes for the Future 
  7. My Biggest Concern About AI 
  8. AI Could Nudge Teachers Out of Their Comfort Zones