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Cheat bot or teaching tool? Central Coast schools decode AI's role in education

An AI-generated image from DALL-E 2 based on a text prompt.
An AI-generated image from DALL-E 2 based on a text prompt.

Last year, students around the country started turning in unusual assignments. Essays switched writing styles, abruptly becoming overly technical or formal, and inconsistent formatting began making teachers suspicious.

The culprit, in many cases, was ChatGPT: a chatbot that uses a type of artificial intelligence called a “large language model” to answer questions and spit out pages of text within seconds. After its launch in November, the website, owned by OpenAI, reached a million users within five days. A handful of other companies followed suit with their own versions of the technology, such as Google’s Bard and Microsoft’s Bing Chat. The chatbots are free to access and easy to use. And they’re changing education.

Madeleine Swift, a biology teacher at Aptos High School, received a suspicious report from a student last year. She recently ran it through a program called ZeroGPT that attempts to identify AI-generated language. ZeroGPT estimated there was a 100% chance the text was AI-generated. Swift made the student rewrite the report, but in cases that are less blatant, a lack of clear policies at schools leave teachers struggling with how and whether to respond.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily cheating to use a tool that’s available to the public or something that might be part of somebody’s job,” said Swift. She believes the conversation should focus more on how to build skills and prepare students for the real world — which will include interactions with AI.

Most local school systems have yet to develop policies on how to deal with ChatGPT. A few school districts banned the chatbot when it first came out, but many have warmed up to students using the technology responsibly. The California School Boards Association recently created a task force to develop AI-focused policies. In the meantime, teachers must respond to its use on a case-by-case basis.

“With the rapid development of AI, I think that it would be irresponsible to pretend that this isn’t our problem, push it off and just say it isn’t allowed,” said Sam Rolens, chief of communications and community engagement at Santa Cruz City Schools.

The district had a board meeting about AI-based chatbots in the spring. To showcase the powerful technology, Shannon Calden, the director of elementary learning and achievement, used ChatGPT to make the presentation. The ultimate recommendation was to allow students to use the chatbots and teach them how to do so responsibly.

“There’s been years and years and years of technologies that have come out that were going to ruin society and ruin education for kids,” she said, using the internet as an example. AI is unlikely to completely dismantle education as we know it, Calden and other educators say, but it will change how teachers assign work. For example, instead of asking students to write an essay about a book, a high school English teacher might tell students to generate three different essays about the book in a chatbot and critique them.

“Then it’s not about the production of it; it’s about actually understanding,” said Calden. “I think teachers changing assignments is really the key to it.”

Preparing for the future

The technology, though powerful, is still new and rough around the edges. Chatbots sometimes spit out biased or inaccurate information. Some teachers are less optimistic about AI as a whole. A few have pointed to the alarming statement, signed by some of the world’s top artificial intelligence professionals, about the risk of extinction AI could pose if it’s allowed to continue developing unchecked.

To make sure students understand the current limitations of chatbots and how to use them responsibly, many educators say classes in digital literacy are more important than ever — for students and teachers.

A recent $50 million grant will help make that happen. The MSCS Professional Learning grant, awarded to three county offices of education over the summer, supports the development of math, science and computer science curricula in California. Monterey County was selected to lead the state in developing computer science initiatives.

“It’s comforting to know that the state of California has committed substantial resources towards the development of computer science in the state, which in turn develops that foundational conversation of artificial intelligence for our teachers, for our students, for our leadership and then for our parent and family and communities,” said Rod Garcia, the computer science and digital learning program coordinator for the Monterey County Office of Education.

Rod Garcia (left) leads a computer science training for teachers in Monterey County
Rod Garcia
Rod Garcia (left) leads a computer science training for teachers in Monterey County

He emphasizes that AI, when used ethically, can grow student curiosity and understanding. Adaptive learning programs, for example, adjust their level of difficulty based on a student’s responses and can create individualized lessons.

AI can also make teachers more efficient. Garcia and other experts around the Central Coast are leading trainings for educators that highlight AI-based tools for making interactive lessons, planning classes and doing administrative tasks.

“It actually could free up more teacher time for their direct interaction between a teacher and their students,” said Monterey County Superintendent of Schools Deneen Gus. The technology will help teachers, not replace them, she says.

“It’s just meant to make our life easier. And so if we use it right — wow, it can do great things for us.” She cautions parents and educators to understand the limitations and pitfalls of AI, but ultimately encourages people to embrace the new tools.

“Technology is going to continue to evolve and develop new programs,” she said. “We just have to be ready to receive it and see how we can use it in an appropriate way in our classrooms.”

Erin joined KAZU as a digital journalist and photographer in 2023.