Why the NYC Department of Education is Wrong on ChatGPT

A system-wide ban feels like fear instead of curiosity, defense over offense, convention over adaptation.

The most recent iteration of ChatGPT was released on November 30, 2022. ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence bot that was trained on an enormous pool of information to engage in simple conversations with users.

Within a week, the AI bot had acquired over one million clients. And as K-12 schools began winding down for the calendar year, ChatGPT was making headlines around the world.

You’ve likely heard the buzz already, but in case you have yet to try it, ChatGPT is to Google what Google is to a set of encyclopedias.

Google is a master curator and locator of information, but ChatGPT has the ability to quickly aggregate and mobilize that information on a level the world has never seen.

If you haven’t seen ChatGPT at work, watch it perform these school-related tasks [9:48]:

  1. Design a lesson plan for an 8th grade civics class
  2. Compare the evolution of protagonists from two different novels
  3. Describe how the water cycle affects Vancouver, BC
  4. Calculate triangle side lengths using the Pythagorean Theorem
  5. Write a campaign speech for middle school president
  6. Suggest solutions for anxiety and loneliness
  7. Write a love poem for a special friend (and then make it spicier)
  8. Write a short story with specific character names

ChatGPT is just the latest manifestation of the growth in AI we’ve seen in recent years. And we know it’s only going to get better.

Enter the NYC Department of Education

Schools across North America were only a few bright days into the new year when the news came down from the NYC Department of Education, the largest school system in the United States: ChatGPT would be banned in all of their schools.

I can understand the fears and concerns about how this technology will impact K-12 education. I think we all can.

Like I said to my wife this week, this technology has permanently changed the way that I read and think about student writing. How can it not?

But I think a blanket ban is the wrong response.

Here’s why.

4 Reasons Why a System-Wide Ban on ChatGPT is the Wrong Call

Let’s start at the most basic, practical level.

1. A ban on a particular website is practically impossible.

NYC can only blacklist websites on school wifi networks, so students will still be able to access ChatGPT when they’re at home, off-campus, or using any device with access to a data network. Since students can obviously still use ChatGPT for homework, a school wifi ban doesn’t mean too much.

One has to wonder if a ban is actually more counter-productive to its own aims by simply raising the profile of the forbidden fruit in question.

2. Whack-a-mole isn’t sustainable.

ChatGPT has certainly grabbed the headlines, but there are plenty of other similar tools out there. And more are appearing all the time.

Quillbot.com is an AI paraphrasing tool that appears to render classic plagiarism checkers useless. TinyWow.com offers a whole suite of free AI writing tools.

Premium (paid) AI writing services such as Jasper.aiShakespeare.ai, and Rytr.me all claim to be able to deliver spectacular results to marketers.

The point: if the district strategy is to ban these tools as they appear, there will be another new tool to ban every month. That doesn’t feel like a strategy that will age well over the years to come.

3. Like wifi, Google, and YouTube before it, ChatGPT is just another step forward for learning tools.

It wasn’t long ago that schools were banning YouTube on their wifi networks rather than leveraging the world’s largest library of video resources to support learning. They opted for the safety of zero exposure rather than do the work of teaching best practices and applying skills of discrimination.

Even before the arrival of YouTube, many schools wrestled with the question of having a wifi network at all. As silly as these questions seem today, they were important conversations at the time.

Of course, Google itself has become a much smarter search engine over the years, prone to serving up large-font answers to closed questions (“How far is the sun from Earth?”) before listing any search results.

Because of this Google Effect, schools and educators have been moving away for some time now from a focus on strictly “Googleable” information to a more nuanced approach to critical thinking.

For example, instead of asking students to memorize the names of all 45 presidents (content which is very Googleable), we ask them to critique the legacies of particular presidents based on currently relevant policy issues.

Content is still important for students to learn. We know that a mass of knowledge forms a necessary foundation in order for students to learn more, make distinctions, draw conclusions, and establish new theories about their world.

But the power of Google has put downward pressure on the importance of content memorization — of that, there can be little doubt.

Like YouTube and Google before it, ChatGPT is just the latest application that will change the way we think about teaching, learning, and assessment.

These powerful technologies are here to stay. Let’s embrace them.

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

4. The biggest reason: a ban sends all the wrong signals about learning and mindset.

In December of 2022, ChatGPT forced the world to reckon with an AI tool that could complete complex tasks in seconds. There’s no doubt that things will never be quite the same.

Who will be the most excited to play with this tool? Our young learners.

Students of all ages will share our child-like fascination with the possibilities. And well they should: this is clearly a technology that will only grow in significance throughout their lifetimes.

Sadly, I fear that a school ban sends all the wrong signals about technology and the nature of learning. It feels like fear instead of curiosity, defense over offense, convention over adaptation.

It looks like head-in-the-sand, I-hope-this-goes-away kind of thinking. And that’s not the approach of a lifelong learner.

I’m not suggesting that every teacher should give their students unfettered access to these tools. There will be times to close computers and show evidence of learning and critical thinking using pencils and paper, just as there are in classrooms today.

But there should be other times to play. To experiment. To learn together — teachers and students, sitting side by side, engaging, thinking, and talking about what it will look like to leverage ChatGPT and similar tools in constructive, powerful ways.

Closing thoughts

Whenever I come up against a difficult decision in our schools, I run it through this tried-and-true filter:

  1. What is best for our kids?
  2. What is best for learning?

Banning the latest technology from our schools just doesn’t feel like a great answer to either of those questions.

Listen, there’s no doubt that the path ahead will be challenging, and these tools will require new approaches.

But growth doesn’t happen in the comfort zone. Let’s lean into uncomfortable spaces and do what we do best: learn.

Together, let’s shape the nature of thinking and work in 2023.

Episode 116 – Caitlin Krause

116 - Caitlin Krause3

Meet Caitlin Krause

CAITLIN KRAUSE is a learning and design specialist, education leader, keynote speaker, and an authority on VR, AR, and AI. She is also the author of Mindful by Design: A Practical Guide for Cultivating Aware, Advancing, and Authentic Learning Experiences.

In addition to experience as a computer programmer, Caitlin has taught and developed curriculum at K-12 schools in the United States, Belgium, and Switzerland. Today, she owns and operates her own company which allows her to facilitate meaningful learning experiences for learners around the world.

Caitlin is fascinated by the intersection of arts, collaboration, communication, relationships, and the newest applications of XR technology. Her learning and teaching is predicated on the idea that we learn and grow as whole human beings, and she resists the disciplinary walls and binaries that we often erect between subject areas in education.

Lessons Drawn From a Novel Failure

“Isn’t it great that we are not great at everything?” Caitlin asks rhetorically. “Life is not a simulation. It’s beautiful that we’re not in control.”

Caitlin recalls introducing a novel to a British literature class for juniors. It was a novel that resonated powerfully with her, and she was sure her students would connect with it. But it required a lot of deconstruction, it lacked a compelling love story, and no matter how much she wanted it to work, it became a serious struggle to work through it with this class.

Eventually, she worked through her own resistance to the situation and embraced the failure and necessary surrender that followed. It was a reminder that what is close to our own hearts may not be close to the hearts of our learners. We need to meet them where they are, and sometimes that means letting go of our treasures.

Teacher Wellness

Caitlin has created an online course for educators on the topics of mindfulness, SEL, and teacher wellbeing. Statistics tell us that many teachers struggle with anxiety and burnout, and we see many teachers leaving the profession after only a few years in the classroom.

We need to remember that humans are reactive beings, and the effects of being constantly on and emotionally available for days on end can be damaging in the long-term. Mindfulness is a practice that offers some powerful counter-effects to these emotional demands. Even though mindfulness can actually raise stress in the short-term as practitioners recognize sources of anxiety, over the long term it has been shown to decrease anxiety as we raise awareness and address sources of stress more proactively.

Mindfulness and self-awareness are powerful measures for learners, too, as they adopt simple practices of quiet reflection, intentional breathing, gratitude exercises, and other strategies for self-regulation. As anxiety comes down, opportunities for learning increase.

Mindful By Design

In 2019, Caitlin published Mindful by Design: A Practical Guide for Cultivating Aware, Advancing, and Authentic Learning Experiences (Corwin Press). Caitlin is an authority on AR and VR and anticipates a major shift in the adoption and application of these technologies in learning spaces throughout 2020. She sees them shaking up teaching, learning, storytelling, site exploration, and other immersive learning experiences. Although the applications are powerful and improving all the time, she also points out that the deep learning actually happens before and after students utilize these technologies.

Advances in Artificial Intelligence

We see AI technologies creeping into the learning environments more and more each year, and tools like Google’s Smart Compose, Google Home, or Apple Siri are making content more accessible for all learners. Artificial intelligence often conjures notions of sci fi and Ex Machina, but AI technologies are serving learning well and informing the improvement of a lot of applications. Caitlin shouts out John Carmack’s interview on the Joe Rogan Podcast and celebrates the amazing innovations he has led at Oculus.

Voice commands and operating capacity continue to improve across all devices, and Caitlin is fascinated by the research that MIT and other authorities are pioneering regarding the recognition of human emotion through facial expression and speech. The companies and institutions leading innovation in AI technologies require richer and more diverse data sets, she observes, noting that “You’re only as good as your data set.”

Making sure that a diversity of cultures, genders, and other factors are properly represented and included remains a central challenge, complicated in some contexts by privacy issues. There are obviously some important ethical questions to be asked and answered regarding how these companies and institutions source their data sets.

Relationships with Robots

Caitlin bears no ill will toward robots – in fact, her approach is much the opposite. “I think it’s good to be considerate to our robot friends,” Caitlin chuckles. “I kind of bristle when someone yells at Alexa.” Machine life and artificial intelligence is taking us into some interesting philosophical territory, particularly as we experiment with creative impulses for robots. Yes, a robot can write a piece of poetry or create a song, but does it have a soul? These are some of the essential conversations that must continue going forward.

Saving Room for Anomalies

Additionally, Caitlin notes that AI devices and technologies must always leave room for the element of surprise and irregularity. In other words, if AI algorithms learn our profiles so effectively that they can supply us with a steady stream of content tailored exclusively for expressed interests, passions, and familiar comforts, we actually reduce or eliminate our exposure to unusual content that has the power to provoke curiosity and inspire further learning. We already see that segregation at work in social media networks and news aggregators, and to lose further ground would be a significant loss to humanity.

“They say the brain learns the best when it has the element of surprise, when expected patterns are broken,”  Caitlin says. How much can we be surprised? This is a great question to ask ourselves as educators and lifelong learners.

What Else is Setting Caitlin on Fire in Education

The metaphor of being on fire is an apt one for Caitlin, and she takes a hopeful view of how voice and creativity and storytelling will continue to strengthen and add momentum to learning. Our fire is essentially the stuff that we find meaningful, she says, and it’s up to us to spread those ideas to others.

We’re all telling stories as educators, and it’s our place to invite listeners to enter into these stories and write their own heroic odysseys as they enter into unknown spaces and then tell their own tales. “It makes me really excited to be in worlds where not only can we lift each other up but we get to stay curious, stay connected, and create love over fear,” she says.

Professional Goals for 2020

Last year was the year of her book, Mindful by Design, and 2020 will be her year to spread her message, ideas, and mentorship. The book is applicable at so many levels, including education systems, leadership, teacher wellbeing, and classroom practices, and she wants to continue to develop online supports for those who wish to integrate these values and strategies into their own unique contexts.

She also wants to continue to build SEL training through immersive VR experiences and AR applications. It’s a fascinating area that requires further development but offers tremendous promise for the future. Will we see a day when groups of educators can connect in virtual environments to practice breathing and mindfulness exercises together? Perhaps that day has already arrived.

Other Personal Passions

“I’m a very human, curious learner,” Caitlin says, “and anything involving photography really excites me.” She’s enjoyed cameras since childhood, and treasures the activity of photography as a mindfulness tool. She also comes alive during opportunities to run outside, especially trails that wind their way through picturesque settings through the woods or along the ocean. Last but not least, Caitlin loves consuming and learning about chocolate from European countries and around the world – so much that she’s even tempted to write about it some day in the future.

Productivity Hacks and Philosophy

One of Caitlin’s favorite productivity hacks is to break simple numerical goals into smaller pieces. For example, instead of aiming for 20 full push-ups, she sets a goal of 40 half push-ups, which gives her a greater sense of momentum and optimism about achieving the target.

She also avoids goals or resolutions of deprivation, choosing instead to always frame her actions in a positive light. “Being productive means realizing that we are not our worst enemy, so be kind and gentle to yourself,” she encourages.

Finding ways to gamify our goals – even simple routines or chores like cleaning – can add joy and pleasure to ordinary exercises of productivity. She shouts out Lisa Johnson’s book, Creatively Productive, as a convincing argument that productivity doesn’t have to look like grueling deprivation or robotic behaviors.

Voices & Resources That Inspire Her Practice

Over on Twitter, Caitlin recommends following Kent Bye @KentBye: historian, philosopher, and host of the Voices of VR podcast. She also shouts out the New Hampshire’s Poet Laureate, Alexandria Peary @WriteMindfully, someone who’s done some interesting work around the effective use of mindfulness to break through writer’s block.

One edtech company that Caitlin has her eye on is Engage, which is doing some innovative work to support learning experiences in VR environments. Another company called 3D Bear is pioneering some exciting AR technologies as well. Consider following both industry leaders on Twitter @3DBearOfficial and @VReducation.

Two books that have impacted Caitlin’s thinking recently are There There by Tommy Orange and Get Weird: Discover the Surprising Secret to Making a Difference by CJ Casciotta.

Caitlin does enjoy podcasts, and she’s especially a fan of the big ones: RadiolabThis American Life, and The Moth. Any content that includes a mix of storytelling and technology will tend to hold her attention.

On YouTube, Caitlin makes a shameless plug for her own channel where she plans to post more creative work in 2020.

When she’s feeling relaxed and ready for some pleasure viewing, Caitlin is streaming Mr. RobotThe Good Place, and The Watchmen on Netflix and Amazon.

Before we sign off on this conversation, Caitlin shares some beautiful poetry pieces. Make sure you’re in a relaxed setting and enjoy.

To connect with Caitlin and learn more about what she’s all about, make sure to check the links below.

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