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Ann Arbor schools review new chat bot that can write student essays


Cathy Shafran (introduction): A new, free, downloadable application called Chat GPT is offering students a new homework tool. It can not only offer artificial help with math and history, it is now capable of writing essays as well. Dr. Heather Kellstrom, head of IT at Ann Arbor Public Schools talked with WEMU's Cathy Shafran about how the software is being received locally and how it works.

Cathy Shafran: If I was a student and had access to it, I could just have it do my homework for me.

Dr. Heather Kellstrom
Ann Arbor Public Schools
Dr. Heather Kellstrom

Dr. Heather Kellstrom: You could. But that's where this tool in education we call things. This is Chat GPT, like tech disrupters. You know, it's a tool that's really been out in the business industry for quite some time. We already know it. It's Siri, it's Alexa, it's wearable technologies, It's how we put Nest and different products in our home to do home devices. So it's already been around and we've used that in what these tech disruptors do is initially they force new thinking and new approaches because they interrupt what we do, what we do in our work environment. So, in school, our policies, our practices, our assumptions, you know, now's a great time to take a look of there's a technology that isn't going the and going to be around, but to test it out in education, see how it works, play with some educational use cases that would work well to support students and teachers in the teaching and learning process.

Cathy Shafran: Oh, so you're thinking teachers should be using this as a tool as opposed to being afraid of it in terms of plagiarism or having somebody else do the student's homework? Is that what you're saying?

Dr. Heather Kellstrom: Well, it's interesting. We have a lot of past practice with other tech educational disruptors. So calculators, you know, when they came about, it really changed how we tested in math class. There was another product called Wolfram Alpha that was a search engine back in 2009, and it could compute anything mathematically. And, you know, it caused a little uproar. So, in the math area, instead of just asking for the factual answers, then we turned around and asked students to apply their findings to more meaningful ways or how they came about it or talk about it in deeper.

Cathy Shafran: But, in this case, it theoretically could write an essay for a student who just doesn't consider themselves a good writer. Is that something teachers should be concerned about? Is that something parents should be concerned about?

Dr. Heather Kellstrom: Well, you know, it's interesting. On our tech team, we actually every day kind of put it through its uses just a little bit to play around with it. So we put in a few we asked for a few essays and asked for some summarization, a variety of books, and then create an essay. And the conversation is still it's flat. I can tell each one I read it. I'm, like, it would be easy. In a K-12 environment, we tend to do a lot of personal narratives and essays that have passion and, you know, requires some creativity. So, those pieces aren't in that chat, but yet a reverse chatbot can just go out and say, This paragraph was taken because it's real data that it's pulling from. So, you know, it'll be interesting. It might make us think we grade our kids on rubrics of writing, and so it might make us change how we grade or evaluate or turn it around to use the chat bot to help start, you know, think of like a struggling personally, I think of like a struggling writer who who really can, you know, get those initial thoughts out. A chat bot might be a great way to help them take those random thoughts and start the writing process. Maybe we ask the chat bot to provide us the initial essay and then maybe the student takes the responsibility of editing peer editing that chat bot and fixing the errors and validating the proof and making that story better.

Cathy Shafran: I hear you putting all of this in positive spin, but do you think at the beginning this will actually be a challenge for some teachers?

Dr. Heather Kellstrom: I do think it will be. I think we help students, you know, facilitate their learning and to already know they could already grab that first before they came to our class or how do we verify it's vetted, you know, factual information. And so, I think grouping of teachers will be really off put by it. But I will hear other ones say the same thing. We did this when it was Wolfram Alpha. We didn't want it was Ask Jeeves is, you know, so they'll come around.

Cathy Shafran: You don't have a concern that this could turn into an issue that many students when they become aware of that will just start using it and substitute for doing their own homework. You're not seeing that?

Dr. Heather Kellstrom So, I think, you know, with every new shift, there comes this chasm of concern and tension and issue with that. We as educators, first, we can't assume you'll attempt by every every student. You know, cheating is always something that is discussed prevalently in education. And so we just can't assume because that what is there that that's going to be the go to place for every student. What we can do is show them how to use that that chat bot in a more positive way, how to teach them to search, how to teach them to validate the information, how to teach them to deal with the misinformation, and then address cheating and plagiarism along the way. So, I think it's just perhaps restating this tool that's out there resetting, you know, and modeling what would be best practice use. We live in this information economy and these this artificial intelligence is taking that importance away from us. So, how do we build our students to be critical thinkers and create them and prepare them for the world? These are the same bots they're going to use in their future learning. So, how do we incorporate it into in a positive way? I think there probably will be moments of problematic or concern or tensions. It's just working through them. It's a great time for teachers to start having these conversations and testing about themselves.

Cathy Shafran (conclusion): Dr. Kellstrom says there have been no reported cases of students in the Ann Arbor school system using the Chat GPT. But that doesn’t mean someone hasn’t tried it. She tells me some districts, like New York City, have blocked the app in their schools. But that’s not a plan in the Ann Arbor schools. Considering it’s an app students could acquire outside of school anyway – it’s better, she says, to look at it as a tool everyone can use together - including students, teachers and parents. She hopes to start sharing information and start a discussion about Chat GBT with the Ann Arbor Public Schools' faculty in the weeks ahead.

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
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