To test the AI ​​learning hype, I visited classrooms

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In January, Marisa Shuman, a computer science teacher at the Young Women’s Leadership School in the Bronx, invited me to spend a few days in her classroom.

Her school, a public middle and high school for girls, specializes in mathematics, science and technology. And she thought I might be interested in a lesson she had just created on ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence-enabled chatbot that can create book reports and social studies essays.

I jumped at the opportunity as a journalist who spent years covering how tech companies and their tools are reshaping public schools.

At that time, ChatGPT was taking off in schools and college campuses. Tech Executives had begun to promote the recognition of AI tools as an important skill for students.

Meanwhile, New York City Public Schools, the nation’s largest school system, blocked access to ChatGPT on school devices and networks due to concerns about fraud and impropriety.

Ms. Shuman, however, saw it as a teachable moment.

She used ChatGPT at home to create lessons on fitness trackers and other wearable technology. Then she tried the material with her 11th and 12th graders.

She told her students that she didn’t care if they didn’t learn anything about wearable technology. But she wanted them to test the accuracy and effectiveness of the lesson created by the chatbot.

In other words, Ms. Shuman was using the AI ​​tool as an exercise for her students to practice critical tech thinking.

And her students were free to criticize. They found that the chatbot-generated lesson contained errors, used advertisements and asked overly-simple questions.

“It reminded me of fourth grade,” said one student.

It was a reminder to me that there is no substitute for journalists visiting institutions to see what is happening and interview participants face-to-face. That was the spark for a reporting project that took me across the country: If I wanted to offer our readers an on-the-ground view of the new AI education boom, I needed to visit a lot more classrooms.

I already knew that some school districts were feeling pressure to introduce generative AI technologies — that is, tools like ChatGPT, trained on vast databases of digital text or images, that can produce text or visuals in seconds — for student use.

That’s partly because some major tech companies, executives and billionaires have hailed AI chatbots as education game changers. The tools they promise will revolutionize student learning and automatically personalize.

There was also widespread FOMO: Some tech leaders warned that students wouldn’t be able to compete for jobs if they didn’t know how to use AI.

I set out to learn how these tools are impacting teaching and learning in schools — and whether the reality in the classroom lives up to the ed-tech hype I’ve covered before.

Over the years, Silicon Valley companies, billionaires and industry-funded nonprofits have promoted a series of technology products as revolutionary educational innovations. But so far, there is little hard evidence showing that video-based tutorials or personalized learning apps significantly improve student academic outcomes.

So I wondered: Will generative AI be any different?

I was fascinated by the promise of AI tutoring bots. So I started by spending a morning at Khan Lab School, a nonprofit private school in Palo Alto, California, where a sixth-grade math class was trying out a new AI tutor called KhanMigo.

There, teachers encouraged students to tinker with the bot, which was developed specifically for school use by Khan Academy, a related — but independently run — nonprofit education organization.

Some students asked Khanmigo to answer math questions in Gen Z slang or in the form of a rap song. A student caught Khanmigo making an addition error and promptly fixed the bot.

Across the country, I found tutoring bot reviews to be more mixed.

At First Avenue Elementary School in Newark, a third-grade teacher leading a class on fractions posted specific math questions on a white board that she wanted her students to ask Khanmigo. The bot responded by giving students step-by-step instructions to solve problems.

School officials who observed the class told me that they found the AI ​​tool more useful. He said he wanted students to be able to think of steps to solve a problem on their own.

I’ve also seen a lot of enthusiasm and innovative uses of AI in schools. Walla Walla, Wash., four hours from Seattle. On a recent visit here, I met teachers using ChatGPT to create imaginative literary games and storytelling assignments for their students.

But the lesson I learned from visiting schools this year wasn’t so much about technology skills.

From the Bronx to Walla Walla, school officials and teachers told me that it’s just as important for students to learn to ask critical questions about artificial intelligence as it is to learn how to use the technology. In fact, for some of them it was more important.

I also learned that there are more stories to report, as many schools and educators are just beginning to discuss what AI education should look like.

So I plan to visit more schools soon. If you are a teacher who would like to host me at your school or share your experience using AI tools, please fill out this form.

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