'This shouldn’t be a surprise' The education community shares mixed reactions to ChatGPT

Since ChatGPT debuted in November, the nation's largest school districts have banned the artificial intelligence chatbot, concerned students will use the speedy text generator to cheat or plagiarize.

Teachers and professors are concerned the technology makes it far too easy for students to use it as a shortcut for essays or other writing assignments and exams and that it generates content in a way that can bypass software that detects when students use information that's not their own work.

Jumping to ban the tool may not be the right course of action, however, education technology experts say: Because AI will be a part of young people's future, it must also be a part of the classroom now.

"Everyone is talking about cheating. If you’re worried about that, your assessments probably aren’t that good to begin with," said Richard Culatta, CEO of the nonprofit organization International Society for Technology in Education. "Kids in school today are going into jobs where not everyone they work with is human."

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What is ChatGPT?

Anyone who uses the ChatGPT website can ask the chatbot a question on any topic and get a speedy, detailed response in paragraph form. (GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer.)

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A spokesperson for San Francisco-based software company OpenAI, which owns the tool, said the company "made ChatGPT available as a research preview to learn from real-world use, which we believe is a critical part of developing and deploying capable, safe AI systems."

On the website, it lists ChatGPT's positive attributes as its capacity to "remember what user said earlier in conversation" and "allow user to provide follow-up corrections,” and how it's trained "to decline inappropriate requests.”

The company is upfront about some of the technology's flaws.

Per OpenAI's website, the chatbot occasionally "generat(es) incorrect information" and "produc(es) harmful instructions or biased content." It lists a third issue: having “limited knowledge of world and events after 2021.”

USA TODAY this month asked the chatbot, “Why are schools banning ChatGPT?"

“I am not aware of any schools that have banned ChatGPT specifically," the chatbot replied. "However, it is possible that some schools or educational institutions may have policies in place that prohibit the use of certain technology in the classroom or during exams, particularly if it is deemed to be a distraction or a potential aid for cheating. Additionally, the use of AI models such as ChatGPT raises ethical concerns around the potential misuse of the technology, such as impersonation or spreading misinformation.

"Therefore, some schools may choose to ban or restrict the use of such technologies as a precautionary measure.”

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Why are schools banning ChatGPT?

In the recent past, school officials' concerns about technology involved students tapping sites including Wikipedia and SparkNotes to gather information without doing their own research or reading.

With access to artificial intelligence platforms that help with grammar, writing and more, teachers and kids alike must learn how to work with it to prepare for the future, said Culatta, whose organization offers training for teachers on using AI in classrooms. 

More training is the plan in the Los Angeles Unified School District, spokesperson Shannon Hebert said. LAUSD temporarily blocked access to ChatGPT and the OpenAI website in December “to protect academic dishonesty, while a risk/benefit assessment is conducted.”

New York City's Department of Education blocked ChatGPT this month from devices and networks owned by schools across the state. The department cited concerns from local school teachers about student success. Oakland Unified in California and Seattle Public Schools have moved to block ChatGPT for now, in part because it creates human-like responses that can be difficult to detect.

Tim Robinson, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Schools, said despite the ban, the district is working on allowing teachers to use it as part of lessons. The district also blocks several other AI generators on school devices, including Rytr, ArticleForge and WriteSonic, he said.

In Oakland, the district wants to use artificial intelligence in schools, spokesperson John Sasaki said, but not until teachers and educators are trained "on the ethical use of AI in order to avoid an overall negative impact upon student learning."

Other large school systems including Miami-Dade and Houston aren't banning ChatGPT – so far.

"The district is looking into it," said Jaquelyn Calzadilla Diaz, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade district. "At this point, a decision has not yet been made."

Culatta said many of the districts he works with also aren't blocking the platforms.

How are colleges and universities handling ChatGPT?

A recent survey of 1,000 college students conducted by the online magazine Intelligent shows nearly 60% of students used the chatbot on more than half of all their assignments and 30% of them used ChatGPT on written assignments.

Some universities are worried about how ChatGPT will affect student work and assessments, given the text generator passed graduate-level exams at the University of Minnesota and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, CNN reported.

But unlike the K-12 schools, bans are far and few. Universities including Princeton are refusing to ban the chatbot, instead advising professors to set their own policies. And NYU professors are advising students not to use ChatGPT, Vice reported.

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What should schools consider when it comes to ChatGPT?

Blocking a particular platform may be far less effective than schools think.

"If they're not using it in their classes, they can use it at home and they can use it on their personal devices," said Adam Phyall, an education technology expert and director of professional learning and leadership from All4Ed, a national nonprofit that advocates for traditionally underserved students.

OpenAI's platform is one of the first of its kind to successfully generate a paragraph in response to a user's questions, but there are others like it out there. On TikTok, students are sharing how similar AI-based tools created by other companies help with schoolwork.

"Are we going to have a conversation about how we're going to unblock it? Or is it going to be: If we’re scared, let’s block it and move onto the next thing?" Phyall said.

Instead, schools could use ChatGPT to teach kids how to improve their writing, for instance, he said.

Culatta's organization recommends schools create rules about using ChatGPT.

Students at a Connecticut elementary school work on math problems on the DreamBox system while their teacher works with other students in class. A wide array of apps, websites and software used in schools borrow elements from video games to help teachers connect with students living technology-infused lives.
Students at a Connecticut elementary school work on math problems on the DreamBox system while their teacher works with other students in class. A wide array of apps, websites and software used in schools borrow elements from video games to help teachers connect with students living technology-infused lives.

However, schools should have been preparing teachers for AI long before its arrival, he said. Other types of AI used in classrooms now include math tutoring assistant Thinkster Math, virtual teaching assistant Jill Watson, and transcription service Nuance.

"We’ve been watching the trend for years," Culatta said. "This shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody."

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What do ChatGPT creators OpenAI say?

An OpenAI spokesperson said the company wants to help schools with their concerns and that users should be upfront about using their AI-generated text. The company is working on a system for teachers to check whether students have used ChatGPT to cheat or plagiarize, the spokesperson said.

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"We don’t want ChatGPT to be used for misleading purposes in schools or anywhere else," the spokesperson said in an email,"so we’re already developing mitigations to help anyone identify text generated by that system."

Contact Kayla Jimenez at kjimenez@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @kaylajjimenez.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Schools ban ChatGPT AI tool, afraid students will cheat, plagiarize