Student standing with robots

As students, families, and educators start the new school year, there are always new technologies to navigate. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a hot topic in education and leading to conversations, in the classroom and at home, surrounding the popular software called ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer). 

What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)?
Before exploring how artificial intelligence might play a role in the lives of students this school year, it is important to understand a little bit more about what it is. According to the US Department of State, artificial intelligence is a “machine-based system that can, for a given set of human-defined objectives, make predictions, recommendations or decisions influencing real or virtual environments.” In other words, artificial intelligence is a way to use computers or computer-controlled machines to do things that humans would normally do. AI has been around since the late 1950s and is already built into many of the things that adults and young people use every day – Face ID to unlock their devices, digital assistants like Alexa and Siri, navigation systems like Google Maps, and social media feeds that are customized for each individual person. 

What is Generative AI?
Even though AI has been around for many decades, its potential for use by individuals and society as a whole has grown over time. We currently live in an age where most information is stored in a digital format that is easily accessed by people, and even more easily accessed by computer programs that can scan and compile data from a large number of sources in a matter of seconds. This ease of access to large amounts of data has assisted the development of generative AI tools like ChatGPT that can compile information and create responses to prompts in a way that mimics a human response. Generative AI is specifically designed to generate text, images, or other forms of media based on a prompt that it is given. For example, students might ask a generative AI tool like ChatGPT to write an essay comparing two different US presidents, educators might ask it to write a lesson plan that addresses two specific content standards, busy parents might ask it to create a dinner recipe based on a few items that they have in their refrigerator, or bloggers might ask it to create a title for their latest blog post  – hint hint…our title was generated by ChatGPT for research purposes only 😉.

What are the Potential Opportunities and Challenges of Using AI With Young People?
As with all technology, AI comes with new opportunities to meet the needs of students as well as challenges for students, families, and educators. Common Sense Media outlined some of these opportunities and challenges in their recently published position paper: AI and Our Kids: Common Sense Considerations and Guidance for Parents, Educators, and Policymakers 2023

They highlight opportunities such as the potential: 

  • for personalized learning that adapts to the individual learning needs and pace of each student
  • to increase access to high-quality education by allowing more remote educational opportunities, especially in areas where access to a free high quality public education does not currently exist
  • to increase creativity and creation by providing new perspectives and ideas to augment students’ creations
  • to increase engagement and motivation by facilitating gamification and simulating real-world scenarios
  • to center critical thinking skills by providing immediate feedback to students and fostering a deeper understanding of subject matter
  • to support teachers to work more effectively and create more engaging learning experiences
  • to augment human work rather than automate human work in all of these areas

They also highlight some possible challenges such as:

  • the perpetuation of bias and unfairness because the algorithms used in AI reinforce human and systemic bias that already exists in the information used to generate AI content 
  • risks of spreading misinformation since AI does not have the ability to evaluate and check the reliability of sources 
  • issues related to privacy, data security, and safety, a common theme also highlighted in this powerful campaign by Deutsche Telekom about how AI can use photos posted online for deepfakes and voice scams
  • dependence on technology as students use less original content and more AI generated content
  • interpersonal/school community challenges as screen time increases and face-to-face interactions get replaced with virtual experiences and connections
  • the impact of open beta testing on kids, as many AI tools have not yet undergone extensive testing and can still be unpredictable in the content they create or responses that they provide to prompts

Many school districts are weighing the potential opportunities and challenges of AI as they kick off the new school year. Whether schools encourage, discourage, or even disallow the use of AI on their devices/networks, research shows that students are using these tools. According to Common Sense Media, a majority of kids surveyed (50%) said they have used ChatGPT for school, and a larger majority (56%) have a friend or classmate who has done so. Half of students have used ChatGPT for school assignments, and of those, nearly all have used it once a week or more. That’s significantly higher use than their parents at home. And their use of ChatGPT is mostly sanctioned by their teachers: 48% of students said their teachers mostly allow them to use ChatGPT.

How Can Parents and Educators Evaluate AI Tools?
In addition to an analysis of potential opportunities and challenges, Common Sense Media also provides students, families, and educators with a list of questions to consider when evaluating whether or not an AI tool should be used by students. 

  • Is this a safe tool for kids? Has it been tuned or trained to keep users safe?
  • Are users exposed to generative content that is safe and free from disinformation, harmful content, etc.?
  • Does this tool increase or enhance social connection? 
  • Is the tool trying to build a relationship with my child that I am comfortable with? 
  • Does this tool contribute to a stronger school learning community? 
  • Can students engage with the tool collaboratively? 
  • Does this tool support critical thinking, personalization, and creativity? 
  • Does this tool support my child’s unique needs? 
  • Does this tool support teachers in doing their jobs more effectively and efficiently? 
  • Does this tool support all of the diverse learners in my classroom or school? 
  • How does this tool protect student privacy? 
  • How is student data collected and stored?
  • Is data ever sold? 
  • Can the content in the tool be moderated by school tools, or does the company itself offer a content moderation service? 
  • To what extent is this tool reliable, accurate, and transparent? 
  • To what extent are adults “in the loop”: Can I see or tell what the child is doing with the tool at any point in time?

As evidenced in this long list of questions, there are many things that students, families, and educators have to consider when evaluating whether a specific AI tool is a good fit. A parent/guardian might be comfortable with their child using My AI, Snapchat’s bot, to vent at the end of a long day but not comfortable with their child using ChatGPT to write a book report. Striking a balance between harnessing AI’s potential and preserving the essence of traditional education and communication is crucial. Educators, families, policymakers, and technology developers must work collaboratively to ensure that AI tools used by students provide enhanced learning experiences without perpetuating bias and misinformation and compromising integrity, privacy, and social emotional development.