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New York City blocks use of the ChatGPT bot in its schools

David C. Banks, chancellor of the New York City public schools, takes a tour of Manhattan's Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology on Oct. 20. (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)

New York City schools banned access last week to ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence bot that lets users, including students, ask the tool to write an essay on Shakespeare, solve an algebraic equation or complete a coding assignment. ChatGPT then churns out a well-written response moments later, a development that school systems, teachers and professors fear could lead to widespread cheating.

“While the tool may be able to provide quick and easy answers to questions, it does not build critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which are essential for academic and lifelong success,” said Jenna Lyle, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education, in a statement to The Washington Post.

The decision by the nation’s most populous school district, first reported Tuesday by Chalkbeat New York, restricts the use of the bot for students and educators on the district’s network or devices. The move echoes a similar decision made Dec. 12 by the Los Angeles Unified School District days after ChatGPT was released.

“Los Angeles Unified preemptively blocked access to the OpenAI website and to the ChatGPT model on all District networks and devices to protect academic honesty, while a risk/benefit assessment is conducted,” a spokesperson for the district said by email Thursday.

Lyle did not clarify whether students could use the tool when not connected to a school’s internet.

The tool, created by the organization OpenAI, uses artificial intelligence software to predict the next word in a sentence by analyzing texts across the internet. ChatGPT was also refined by humans to make its answers more conversational. Identifying the use of the bot by a student can be difficult, though various AI companies have developed programs that could help teachers do so.

Just days after the bot was released to the public in November, more than a million people had tried ChatGPT as it quickly gained widespread popularity. Some users asked the bot to write a story about love. Others used it for creative inspiration. Teachers worried students would use it to write essays, losing out on the writing process that they see as critical to students’ development as thinkers.

“We don’t want ChatGPT to be used for misleading purposes in schools or anywhere else, so we’re already developing mitigations to help anyone identify text generated by that system,” OpenAI said in a statement sent to The Post on Thursday. “We look forward to working with educators on useful solutions, and other ways to help teachers and students benefit from artificial intelligence.”

Outside of New York City and Los Angeles, other large school districts said they have not yet made plans to restrict ChatGPT.

“We have not banned it yet,” said Monique Braxton, a spokesperson for Philadelphia schools. “But we are always looking at how new products are affecting our students.”

Still, some experts say restricting the technology is shortsighted, arguing that students will find ways to use the bot regardless of whether it continues to gain popularity. One senior at a Midwestern school told The Post in December that he had already used the text generator twice to cheat on assignments.

Lalitha Vasudevan, the vice dean for digital innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University, took a different tone. She said using the bot should be embraced as a new learning opportunity.

“If the things that we used to put so much effort into in teaching can be automated, then maybe we should rethink what the actual goals and experiences are that we should work toward in the classroom,” she said.

Vasudevan noted that innovations such as graphing calculators were initially shunned by some who felt they would turn meticulously working through formulas into simply plugging in numbers. Now, learning to use those calculators is simply part of a student’s education.

She said teachers and districts could incorporate the bot into regular lesson plans, comparing, for example, the way the tool formulates a two-minute Shakespearean speech to the way a student might write one.

That, she said, is one way ChatGPT could help to develop a student’s critical thinking skills further.

“These are hard decisions schools need to make, but they should not be made out of fear,” Vasudevan said. “They should be made within the scope of improving student learning.”