Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools devices don’t allow access to ChatGPT, but should they?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools devices don’t allow access to ChatGPT, but should they?

Photo: Axios archives

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As school districts across the country debate banning ChatGPT, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has already blocked the artificial intelligence tool from students’ devices.

Why it matters: ChatGPT is an easy-to-use, AI chatbot that can answer questions and explain concepts within seconds when prompted. The responses are so articulate that educators are worried students will use the system to cheat or write essays.

For example, typing in a question like “What are the themes in ‘Of Mice and Men?'” pulls up a thorough and seemingly well-researched response.

  • As companies like Microsoft look to incorporate AI into search engines and software, it’s becoming increasingly clear that AI will become part of our daily lives. Educators are questioning whether they should embrace the technology in their classrooms or if they’d be setting students back by rejecting it.

What’s happening: CMS is a one-to-one district, meaning all students are assigned either an iPad or a Chromebook. Older grades tend to take the devices home with them. But CMS controls which apps are downloaded. A filtering system blocks students from reaching certain sites or searching inappropriate terms.

  • ChatGPT was automatically blocked through this filtering, CMS’ chief technology officer Candace Salmon-Hosey told Axios. But there’s always the opportunity for CMS to one day unblock the tool or even purchase ChatGPT subscriptions as a resource for students.

“At the end of the day, this is a highly realistic chatbot that can really make us more productive if we use it for the good,” Salmon-Hosey said. “We just need to figure out where it fits in education.”

State of play: A growing number of schools across the U.S. are still determining their responses to ChatGPT.

  • Seattle Public Schools banned ChatGPT and six other potential “cheating sites.”
  • Administrators at Denver Public Schools told Axios Denver they were developing tactics to “tackle” the new technology.
  • New York City schools swiftly blocked access to ChatGPT on city-owned laptops and networks.

What they’re saying: The response by North Carolina school districts has been “all over the place,” Salmon-Hosey said. Mainly smaller systems are accepting that AI is “here to stay” and leaving it accessible. Larger school districts, which have a larger number of devices to manage and rely more on filters, are “more locked down.”

  • “(ChatGPT) has implications for doing the children’s home workout outright or cheating,” Salmon-Hosey said. “I think it’s such a new, progressive type of artificial intelligence that everybody’s trying to feel their way through.”
  • She added she’s heard various perspectives from CMS teachers as well. Some are unfamiliar with the technology. Others are trying to figure out what the pros and cons are. So far, she says she hasn’t heard any complaints about students cheating.

Reality check: ChatGPT may not be the sole blame for some of the concerns revolving around AI in the classroom. It may just be highlighting the shortfalls that already exist.

Dr. Heather Coffey, a K-12 education professor at UNC Charlotte, said she can see the benefits of using it to aggregate information for research quickly. But she also thinks it could take away from writing instruction happening in schools, which is already miniscule.

“I can see it as an opportunity for teachers and for college professors or the writing community to really get together and talk about the need for more writing instruction,” she said.

Since North Carolina End-of-Grade Tests don’t include writing, the subject often falls by the wayside in classes. Teachers are forced to focus efforts more on math, reading and science — topics on the standardized tests.

  • ChatGPT users can also direct the chatbot to write in certain styles, from requesting that the response is less articulate to more like Dr. Seuss. It could even ask the chatbot to type the a way a person of certain demographics would talk.

“Teachers have enough writing assignments in their classrooms that they know their students’ writing styles,” Coffey said. “But this might eliminate that opportunity for me to spot plagiarism.”

Zoom out: Technology has always been a push-and-pull in education, Salmon-Hosey said. Even after the pandemic forced schools to go remote, some districts are still hesitant to become “one-to-one” districts and put devices in the hands of all students.

  • Years ago, when YouTube came out, school systems banned the website entirely because they had no way to filter it, Salmon-Hosey recalled. But now, it often serves as a learning tool.
  • “It’s a balancing act we’re always playing,” she said. “And it takes a little more time for the school system to catch up where universities are just based off some of those considerations we have to take into account.”
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