An article in the New York Times late last month declared that some teachers are embracing AI chatbots and want to actively encourage using them their classrooms.
They are horribly misguided.
If you can’t beat ‘em…
School districts in Los Angeles and New York were initially cautious about generative AI in their classrooms, according to the NYT’s article, but the latter has given up trying to block its use and the former is considering something similar.
The reasoning is twofold: First, rich kids can access such tools on their personal devices, so bans aren’t implemented equitably and, second, what’s the point of banning a technology that will soon be omnipresent in everyone’s work and personal lives?
“They are going to grow up in a world where this is the norm,” explained one teacher from a smaller school district that’s experimenting with letting kids and teachers use ChatGPT. The district’s superintendent added, “putting our heads behind the curtain or under the sheets and hoping it goes away is simply not reality.”
There are familiar restatements of the “technology is inevitably inescapable” argument that has led parents to put tablet computers in the hands of their little children and give smartphones to their tweens.
Now, another new technology has been made widely available and positioned as something fun and easy to use, so it’s up to users to figure out how to incorporate that unfettered availability and operation into their lives.
If the only tool you have is addiction, then every problem looks like a new drug.
The jury is still out on technology in the classroom.
It’s hard to make a case against tech in classrooms without sounding like a Luddite, but the research isn’t conclusively positive. Just ask a teacher about it and you’ll probably get the same feedback.
Connecting the Internet to classrooms seems to be the biggest net positive, according to an authoritative study from McKinsey in 2020. Having a vast if unstructured encyclopedia of information available in real-time makes sense as a benefit, as any adult who has struggled to answer a trivia question will attest.
But that’s a content benefit, not something that emerges from interacting with the technology itself.
This is evidenced by further findings that access to content needs to be mediated by teacher control; when students use their own devices, the educational benefits crash. Other studies suggest that it impairs both learning and memory.
The McKinsey study’s authors conclude:
“Taken together, these results suggest that systems that take a comprehensive, data-informed approach may achieve learning gains from thoughtful use of technology in the classroom.” [emphasis added]
When you look at educational content modified for consumption on devices, mostly in the gamification area, the results are similarly murky.
There are lingering questions about whether or not tech is good for learning, yet it seems like many educators have decided that using AI in the classroom is the answer.
The addiction of convenience.
The lure of ChatGPT in the classroom is that it’s easy…easy to use, and makes doing formerly difficult things easier, from students researching topics to teachers creating lesson plans. No longer do they have to visit multiple websites and cut-and-paste content. Generative AI does it for them.
How this is supposed to improve education is a mystery to me.
Again, ask any teacher and they’ll tell you that their goal is to inform and inspire kids to learn and, thereby, encourage them to gain knowledge. This makes the process of leaning the key vs. focusing on its contents or even its testable outcomes; hypothesizing, searching, vetting, presenting, and defending their findings and emergent beliefs is more important than getting every answer right (or easily).
We want kids to grow up to be learners, which probably correlates with abilities and willingness to listen, engage, and evolve in their personal and professional lives.
Using ChatGPT in this context is like shipping ready-made dinners to a gourmet restaurant’s kitchen.
Learning isn’t like shopping. It doesn’t get better when you fast-forward to the purchase or, in the classroom, handing in a paper or taking a test. Though it might seem curmudgeonly, the education journey is more important than the destination, and it’s supposed to be challenging, time-consuming, and personal.
There are loads of excuses for why that’s not so, that somehow making tasks “easier” makes them “better.” Specific to education, there are legitimate needs for teaching kids about tech (drivers’ ed has been a standard for many years).
But embracing generative AI in the classroom is not the same thing as teaching them to understand it and be critical of its function. It’s a cop-out.