Every week I get dozens of emails about ChatGPT and student education. As a professor of law focused on technology and a mom of three kids I am fielding messages from my kids’ schools, from my workplace, and from colleagues near and far. They share a sense of panic about the AI chatbot that is able to almost magically—and instantly—generate schoolwork that students for centuries produced through laborious research and writing. How will students learn to research and write? How will we assess them? Is the use of ChatGPT plagiarism? Should we ban it and how? What policies are other institutions adopting? Do they work? And as the advanced version—ChatGPT4—aced multiple standardized tests, many asked, can we even keep up?
Although seemingly ChatGPT caught us off guard, it did not spring up out of nowhere. The warning signs were on the school wall for over a decade, yet we ignored them. ChatGPT is just the newest in a line of technologies that destabilize how and what our children learn in school. But by grabbing our attention and requiring rapid response, it has instigated sorely needed change: we’ve started to shift from automatically incorporating any and all technology into the classroom to a more discriminating approach.
For far over a decade government policy promoted an agenda of maximizing technology in the classroom. This is commonly known as “a laptop for every child.” The federal government conditioned funding on technology integration in the classroom. Many of us were not paying attention to the outcome of this policy because as a society, we celebrate innovation and believe that technology will promote progress. We especially believe that our children should be tech savvy to progress in life. ChatGPT may be our wakeup call to reexamine education policy and adopt a more skeptical approach toward incorporating technology into the classroom.
The first set of findings raising concern about the impact of technology in the classroom were two mega studies, which found that technology largely failed to improve learning outcomes. The results also revealed that that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students. It turned out that learning requires intensive in-person teacher-student interactions. In other words, kids often learn better from people, not from machines.
Then came an even more alarming set of psychological research and brain image findings, which looked at the impact of excessive screen time on children. These studies revealed a significant detrimental effect of excessive screen-time on kids’, including on their cognitive development, mental well-being, and attention. Around the same time, whistleblowers and activists from Silicon Valley revealed that technology companies design their products to addict users and prolong their time on screens.
Before the pandemic many teachers delayed introducing technology into the classroom, relying on years of tried out teaching methods. But when the pandemic turned school into virtual school, teachers desperate to keep kids engaged incorporated social media and games into classes and homework. I recall a mom telling me proudly that her fourth grader was preparing a podcast by interviewing experts about Colonial America. The following week she was less enthusiastic: the teacher posted the podcast on a YouTube channel. The kids were competing for likes and her daughter insisted on starting her own YouTube channel.
Today, there are more screens, games and social networks incorporated into schoolwork. Online games, like Roblox and Minecraft now have flourishing education departments collaborating with schools and teachers. In our desperate quest to technologize the classroom, we have let the fox into the chicken coop. The technology industry–whose revenues depend on extending users’ time online—became a more powerful player in influencing the school curriculum. And what happens in school does not stay in school. When schoolwork takes place on screens, so does homework. When school legitimizes an addictive game as education, students are much more likely to play it at home.
Despite these alarms, education policy remains largely unchanged. Federal guidelines continue to promote incorporating more technology into the classroom, without considering the harms of learning through screens. But ChatGPT has changed the rules of the game, by illustrating that we need to become tech-skeptics when introducing technology into schools. Educators’ initial reactions to ChatGPT already expand our menu of options. Few resorted to the norm of hastily integrating it into the classroom. Many banned it, while others experimented with it.
Incorporating tech skepticism into the classroom is long overdue. We need to shift from maximizing technology in the classroom to a more restrictive approach. This means that not every technology, even if marketed as an educational tool, belongs in the classroom. Actions banning or restricting use of certain technologies are legitimate when they enhance the learning process. To implement this approach, we need to require school districts and schools to seek teachers’ input and assess when to incorporate technology into the classroom.
First, a new technology should be integrated only if school districts and schools can prove that using a tool for a function traditionally taught by a human teacher would result in a superior outcome. For example, are video game quizzes to assess students better than those administered by teachers? Second, new tech needs to undergo a cost-benefit analysis. It must serve educational goals, not convenience, and be weighed against the physical, psychological harms and the risk. For instance schools should be inquiring, is the teacher assigning the video quizzes to avoid time intensive grading? Does increased motivation to learn by playing a video game among students outweigh the harm of exposure to dopamine bursts through the game’s reward system?
Similarly, school districts and schools must assess whether technologies already used by teachers, particularly games and social networks, should be part of the school curriculum. We also need to extend this inquiry to the staples of classroom technology—the use of computers tablets and Internet access. Screen time should be restricted for all but adjusted according to age, with younger students racking up less screen time than older students. And even when screen time is assigned, it should undergo the same cost-benefit analysis as specific applications. Further, free Internet access should be available in the classroom when educators show that it accomplishes learning objectives instead of distracting students.
Finally, schools’ responsibility extends beyond curriculum choices to the ways students learn to socially interact. Banning cellphones in schools is an emerging international and local trend.
France led the way, banning phones in schools in 2018, including during lunch breaks and recess. According to the French government, the impact of phones on social interaction necessitated this sweeping move. In the United States, most efforts to ban phones in schools have come locally, from municipalities and most often from schools themselves. While some took action, others adopted a laissez-faire approach to cell phones in school. We should require all school districts and schools to evaluate the need for cell phone access during the school day, and the impact of cell phones on students’ ability to concentrate in class and to socialize between classes. Based on this evaluation, they should determine whether to ban cellphones during classes and during lunch and recess. ChatGPT has highlighted the risks of mindlessly sending off our children into a tech-dominated future. It has underscored that making different choices is possible and important. Particularly for a generation of children that has already spent over a decade, and an entire pandemic, in front of screens.
This essay was adapted from Bernstein’s book Unwired: Gaining Control over Addictive Technologies.
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