DC region schools ban AI tool ChatGPT

During a recent theology class at DeMatha Catholic High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a student used his phone to access the artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT.

The site is blocked on school-issued Chromebooks, so the student placed his phone on the chair next to him and typed the AI-generated responses into the computer to complete the assignment, Principal Daniel McMahon said.

Another student used the tool’s responses to write a paper and was brought in by school leadership to discuss consequences of plagiarism.

Even though DeMatha blocked the website, students can still access it on their personal cellphones and computers, McMahon said.

School systems across the country are grappling with whether to ban the new tool outright, or allow students to use it to help under the right circumstances. ChatGPT, which launched Nov. 30, 2022, uses AI and can create paragraphs worth of human conversation-like text. It’s free (for now) and operates as a written conversation between the system and the user asking questions.

Last week, New York City school officials announced plans to block ChatGPT, and several jurisdictions across the D.C. region have started doing the same.

Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland’s largest school system, said it blocked access to the website as of Jan. 3. A spokeswoman said the county promotes the use of technology for learning new information, but “it must be done responsibly, ethically and cautiously.”

The school district is working on guidance to share with teachers and staff.

Meanwhile, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia said the site is blocked on county-issued devices “under federal Children’s Internet Protection Act educational guidelines, because it is a new technology that has not yet been fully assessed for suitability of consumption by minors.”

It’s also creating a working group to review the “impact and opportunities” of the new technology.

D.C. Public Schools and Prince George’s County Public Schools said they’re also evaluating the tool. At DeMatha, McMahon plans to discuss the use of ChatGPT with parents later this month.

“We’ll use technology when we can, (but) we have people who are planning to move to oral exams as we get to the end of the school year,” McMahon said. “In May, that will be a little bit complicated, but we’ll support that so that we know what students know.”

Ryan Watkins, a professor of educational technology at George Washington University, said the site works like autocorrect on cellphones, but is “100 times more powerful, where instead of just being trained on what you’ve typed into your phone, it’s been trained on millions, billions of things that have been written and posted to the internet.”

Watkins said ChatGPT predicts which words should follow other words, and can complete both broad and specific tasks. It has the capability to write students’ papers and can also write computer code.

“You can ask it anything from, ‘Tell me more about the French Revolution and what brought it about’ … You can ask it to write poetry of certain styles — you can ask it to write poetry as if Winston Churchill was writing poetry.”

At DeMatha, McMahon demonstrated ChatGPT to students by asking it to tell the story “Goodnight Moon” as if it were written by Stephen King. One teacher at the school used it to generate 10 quiz questions from the first chapter of a novel students were reading.

At GW, Watkins said he’ll encourage his students to use it “in a way that maybe helps them think of creative ideas. Then, they can take over as the human and start to combine those ideas and add their content to it.”

ChatGPT does have its limitations, though. For one, the data it was trained on doesn’t include information created after 2021 — so ask it about the invasion of Ukraine or the recent midterm elections, and it’ll come up short.

Sometimes, Watkins said, “it’ll make up references, including references with people who never existed or to journals that were never published.”

But the best way to know whether a student is submitting ChatGPT’s response as their work is to recognize a student’s writing style. A Princeton University student recently developed an app that could determine whether copy is written by a human or AI tool, CBS News reported.

“If I have sixth grade students, and they’re starting to use really complex language structure, and some really big words that maybe they haven’t had access to in much of their readings, I might start to question ‘how much of this are they actually developing’ versus ‘what might they be getting from somewhere else?'” Watkins said.

While Watkins said he understands blocking it so teachers can receive training on ChatGPT, he said embracing it may prove beneficial.

“We can’t sit back and think that we can just block students from using it, just as we wouldn’t anymore want to keep calculators out of the classroom,” he said.

Out of curiosity, we asked ChatGPT to describe WTOP News as if it were talking to a middle school student:

“WTOP News is a radio station that broadcasts news, traffic, and weather information in the Washington D.C. area. It’s like a radio station that tells you what’s happening in your city and how to get around. They also tell you about the weather so you know if you need to wear a coat or bring an umbrella.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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