Friday, January 6, 2023

The DOE Blocked ChatGPT. It Was the Wrong Move. Here's Why

If you haven't heard of ChatGPT, let me briefly introduce you. 

It's a chat bot. 

You access the chat bot (ChatGPT) by creating an account with the company who hosts it. (That company is partially supported by Elon Musk). The chat bot is called ChatGPT. But you chat with it. That's all you do. It understands and answers you as though it is a well informed human being. 

It isn't a human being, mind you.  It's an artificial intelligence chatbot. But it knows a lot about a lot andso it will answer you. 

And what folks say about it is true! It can, indeed write you a complete essay, in the form and structure of your choosing, and in whichever writer's style you prefer -and it will do this in less than one minute. This is the essay killer.  

Here's what it wrote when I asked it to write for me. (Here is what I asked it):

Hi! I am a school teacher who is frustrated with the decisions my school district makes. I write a blog called nycdoenuts. Can you write me two paragraphs of satire about my school district in the style of Charles Bukowski?Thanks!

It delivered this to me in less than 45 seconds:

"The school district is a place of endless bureaucracy and red tape, a labyrinth of paperwork and meetings that seem to accomplish nothing. The administrators sit in their plush offices, issuing edicts and decrees from on high, while the teachers and students toil away in the trenches, struggling to make sense of it all. And yet, despite all the nonsense and frustration, there is a strange sort of beauty in the chaos, a poetry of sorts in the absurdity of it all. So we keep trudging on, day after day, hoping against hope that someday, somehow, things will get better. But we're not holding our breath.

The school board is a collection of self-important blowhards, each one more pompous and out-of-touch than the last. They talk a big game about "student achievement" and "closing the achievement gap," but all they really care about is the bottom line. They'll cut corners and make deals with the highest bidder, all in the name of "efficiency." And the teachers and students? They're just pawns in the board's grand scheme, expendable assets to be shuffled around and used as leverage. It's enough to make you want to pull your hair out. But what can you do? It's a dirty game, and sometimes you just have to roll with the punches."

This is fairly close to accurate, if you know what I mean!! It does have one fatal limitation but that's something I will talk more about a little later. 


With all of this "Self-writing" involved, it naturally stands to reason that NYCDOE would have a knee-jerk reaction of completely banning ChatGPT from any and all city schools and city devices. On the surface, banning this seems very (very) pragmatic. After all, we can't have all these kids having the internet write their essays for them, can we? And, yes, steps should be taken for security purposes. 

But if we dig beneath that surface, you may realize that the city DOE did (again) exactly the opposite of what students in the 21st Century actually need. We are no longer locked in the 20th century mindset of answering questions to demonstrate how prepared we are. We're in a whole new world. I mean, if the last twenty years of education and American History hasn't showed you that our students are more than just a performance score on a standardized test, then I don't know how many more years you will need before you realize that this method of teaching and learning is approaching its end. 

And there are skills that students do need for the 21st Century! A few years back, some conservative-leaning policy makers teamed with with a former president of Tanzania and created a list of 12 skills that they felt every student on Earth will need for the 21st Century.  They sound new when you read them but the 21 Century Skills are, truly, old-school ideas that come straight from the days where you and I were in school and were asked to problem-solve.  They are as old school education as you can think of. Here's how one website defines them

21st century skills refer to the knowledge, life skills, career skills, habits, and traits that are critically important to student success in today’s world, particularly as students move on to college, the workforce, and adult life. 

There are 12 of these skills in all spread across three categories of Learning Skills, Literacy and Life Skills.  These are international skills, not just the US. And any student who possesses them will be, as the research goes, be successful in the 21st Century. Take a look at the chart below and think about what's there! Then think about what may be missing:

 Did you notice how essay writing isn't listed as one of the 21st Century skills?

Wait, stop. Of course students will need to write essays. I am not trying to make that point. Please read on ... 


I want to go back to my point about ChatGPT's "fatal limitation": It does have one and that limitation is super fatal. It is greatly limited by what questions the user is able to generate. And being able to understand facts and basic details from a high level text and then phrasing those facts into a question are high order thinking skills. In the world of Bloom's Taxonomy, we call these "synthesis" skills.  

Take my example from above. In order to get the chat bot to write what to me in the style of Charles Bukowski,  I would have needed to be able to perform these tasks:

  • 1) phrase a question in writing (after reading and understanding a difficult text)
  • 2) Know enough to specify the critique my school district and 
  • 3) understand and internalize the writing style of one Charles Bukowski (here he is!). 

Do you see the massive shift there? This changes everything. Students in the 21st Century will be required to ask, not answer, the right questions in order to be prepared for the world.  

Please let that sink in. Everything is changing -soon. This is a massive massive shift.  This is the era that ChatGPT has ushered in and the skills required to generate even these simple two paragraphs are some very high order thinking skills indeed. 


I was going to play with this in the classroom during the month of January. I was going to ask students to use ChatGPT to "describe" how a picture of Mansa Musa might look using specific details from some primary source documents I have. I was then going to have them use another popular AI tool, called Dall-E 2 to generate a picture based on their description.(Yes. That happened as well last year. DallE 2 will take your description and generate a brand new original image based on that description).

The results would have varied by each student's knowledge of the my academic articles they read and how well they were able to phrase the questions they ask the software.  It would all have come down to how well they read the document I assigned to them. Good annotations? You would have a great picture. Bad annotations? You would have generated poop. It would have been a fun little "end of semester" activity. 

Only it won't happen, because the DOE has blocked it all. 

Of course, I tested this activity out for myself. Wan to see?

When I tested my lesson activity, ChatGPT was asked this question (the specifics were based off of the reading I was going to give to my students about Mansa Musa):

Can you describe how a picture of how Mans Musa's would look? I read somewhere that he dressed in wide trousers, which were made from about twenty pieces of a kind of cloth that only he was allowed to wear, that his weapons were all made of gold and were kept near his throne at all times. I also learned that he dressed  a page would always stand on his left holding a silk umbrella and that the surmounted by a dome and a gold falcon. How would a picture of this? I would like to ask Dalle to make me one.

ChatGPT then returned this full description (pic below):

But then I read and paraphrased that description and asked that other AI tool I mentioned (DALL E 2) to generate an original picture based on my paraphrase. Here's how I paraphrased the answer from ChatGPT:

"A picture of Mansa Musa depicted as a regal and imposing figure, dressed in luxurious clothing and surrounded by symbols of his wealth and power including wide trousers made from sumptuous cloth, and a page  standing beside him holding his silk umbrella, and a depiction of his throne, which was surmounted by a golden falcon. " 

The pictures you see below were generated by the other AI took; DALL E 2. But the description came from my interaction with ChatGPT. There are no other pictures like these anywhere on Earth. They are completely unique and based on my recollection of the reading I had ready for my class. 

(Ok. Yes they are probably based on familiar paintings, and pictures, but each of these includes specifics from the article that I was going to have my students read.  This is the skill of phrasing a high order question and then paraphrasing the answer to that question).

I think they are great images and they would have looked good in my classroom. But, as I mentioned,  the tool has been blocked. you see, from all DOE devices and all DOE networks. So now I can't. 


And maybe that's not so bad! It may well be pragmatic for the DOE to block all use of this for now.  After all, my students will have to answer a bunch of questions and write an essay next year in order to pass their high school regents exam, won't they? This isn't the future. It's high school. 

But this is how the future will look. This is what's coming. And, believe it or not, it is going to open up great possibilities for our students and completely disrupt the way future teachers do their job. Blocking it for now is a pretty good move. But preparing for the inevitable arrival of AI in our classrooms and lessons should also happen -now. If I know the DOE, there are probably more appetite for donuts than to begin addressing this. But this would have been the correct move. 

Look, the first personal computer went on sale in 1971. The first laptop? 1981. Social media wasn't invented until the 2000s, and the iPhone, or greatest invention, was born in 2007. We now muc add 2022 to this list of special years because AI is here. Now.  


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