Generative AI Creates Enormous Equity Issue in Education
My colleagues and I at the Center for Excellence at New Tech High have planned a long blog series focused on the urgent necessity of equipping teachers and students with the skills and knowledge to effectively and ethically use generative AI tools to improve educational outcomes.
That schedule has been momentarily derailed by an urgent equity issue that has arisen with the new capabilities in the generative AI toolkit (in particular, ChatGPT).
This equity issue is intimately related to the topic of the digital divide, which first entered the popular lexicon in 2000 during President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address. As a reminder, the digital divide is unequal access to modern technology, including sophisticated software, laptops, tablets, phones, and the high-speed wifi that enables them. This problem will again dominate policy and practice discussions as the capabilities of generative AI expand, seemingly on a weekly basis.
The New Digital Divide
Equitable access to ChatGPT and similar platforms seems effortless. After all, signing up for a basic user account is simple, easy and free. So yes, we need every student and teacher to sign up for an account and to be trained on how to use generative AI for educational purposes.
Generative AI is device agnostic. According to data released by Common Sense Media in March of this year, 42 percent of kids have a phone by age 10. By age 12, it’s 71 percent. By 14, it’s 91 percent. The app versions of generative AI such as ChatGPT can be installed on mobile devices (phone or tablet) in a few seconds.
Hidden behind that simple enrollment process is a hidden barrier that economically comfortable children and parents are going to leap with ease. For $20 a month you can sign up on ChatGPT for the advanced version of the tool. That money unlocks features that are, in educational and professional settings, almost priceless. The “freemium” approach that these platforms will use represent a key equity challenge at the outset.
The subscription fee allows you to access a fundamentally powerful ability: You can upload files (CSV, PowerPoints, Word Documents, PDFs, Zip, JPEGs, etc.) to ChatGPT and then ask it to extract and analyze the information in these files. With one prompt you can command ChatGPT to turn that data analysis into downloadable files (Excel, Word, GIF, PowerPoint, etc.) that you can use for work or school.
For now, you can do neither of these things on the free version of ChatGPT. That is an equity issue.
Uploading Files to ChatGPT is a Game Changer
I spend a lot of time reading research reports and policy statements. I take notes, highlight key passages, statistics or quotes, and then add them to my notebook for addition to future blogs or presentations. It’s a boring, time consuming process. But not anymore.
Because I subscribe to the paid version of ChatGPT (which uses the powerful version 4.0 of the software and accesses beta versions of tools and fully operational plugins) I was able to upload a PDF of a research report, ask it to extract a two-page outline and write a one-page and one-paragraph summary in a Word document highlighting the key points of the report. I then asked ChatGPT to create six PowerPoint slides that highlight its findings, even specifying font, point size, color scheme, and a selection of graphics.
Can you imagine what this tool will do in the hands of students who can afford it? How much more efficient their studying will be and how much time they will save on routine homework tasks compared to their economically challenged classmates? That is an equity issue.
Accessing the Web in real time with ChatGPT
Most readers should be aware that the training data set used to build ChatGPT was capped in January of 2022. There are a variety of technical and ethical reasons for the cutoff, but this is not the space to explore them. From a practical standpoint the termination date means you can’t actively search the Web using ChatGPT or Bard and retrieve current information (though the big tech companies are beta testing the integration of generative AI into their Web search engines).
A paid subscription opens a new world of Web exploration in part because multiple companies are creating ChatGPT plugins (much in the same way that Google Chrome has used plug-ins for years). One of these plugins, in Beta at the moment but fully accessible to paid subscribers, allows you to write prompts (questions or tasks you ask ChatGPT to complete) that include up-to-the-minute web searches, neatly leapfrogging the January 2022 termination line of the training data set.
Again, do you not think that well-resourced families are going to provide that tool to their children? That is an equity issue.
Pushing forward with the Conversation
I welcome the conversation that should ensue about this new digital divide. I decided to prepare for that conversation by using my paid subscription to ChatGPT and all the powers that come with it to demonstrate that the technology has driven far ahead of the human capacity to comprehend its impact, especially on education. Here is my prompt:
“Initiate a search using Bing and create a one-page summary of the ethical issues for students and teachers surrounding the use of generative AI.”
ChatGPT, ever the obedient helper, used one of the Beta tools I have access to and initiated a real-time web search. This is what it gave me in response:
“The search did not return relevant results for the ethical issues surrounding the use of generative AI for students and teachers. The results are mostly related to Bing’s AI features and updates, which don’t address the topic you’re interested in.”
Much has been written about the ethical use of generative AI in the classroom. We now need to talk about equitable access to advanced AI tools or the digital divide will become a chasm.
Our Solution Supporting Teachers
We understand and see the equity issue that this provides for our students. Being a high school focused on project based learning, we are continuously adapting to artificial intelligence in the classroom on the daily basis. It is our vision to help spread the ethical and practical uses for teachers to improve their practice and be more efficient.
This blog has been focused primarily on ChatGPT, and like the rest of the artificial intelligence world, the tools have expanded exponentially. We have since developed a series of different workshops and trainings for teachers on how to use a variety of FREE AI tools to help break this digital divide.
The tools we help teachers dive into helping them write leveled texts, creating rubrics, building ideas around authentic projects and ideas for developing clarity in learning. Then there are ethical concerns in using these tools, how do we navigate the AI world ethically and responsibly? We are excited to help support teachers in this work and build their capacity in the process.
David Ross (@davidPBLross) is the retired CEO of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning and the former Senior Director of the Buck Institute for Education (now PBLWorks). David was an 11th grade American Studies (History and English 11) team teacher. David created curriculum design templates, exemplary projects, rubrics for critical thinking and collaboration, and project management techniques.