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From COVID Recovery to the Rise of AI Chatbots, We Must Move More Quickly to Reinvent Education in 2023

Robin Lake: The debut of ChatGPT is a potent reminder that we will have failed this generation if we do not shift public education toward the future

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Did you, like me, take time over the break to play with one of the new artificial intelligence bots? I asked ChatGPT to write a blog in the style of Robin Lake on the topic of helping students recover from the impacts of COVID-19 and related school closures. Here’s what it offered:

As the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, I’ve been closely following the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our education system. One of the most significant impacts has been the widespread school closures, which have disrupted the education of millions of students around the world.

As we start to emerge from the pandemic and schools begin to reopen, it’s important that we focus on helping students recover from the impacts of these closures. Here are a few key ways that we can do that:

1. Prioritize mental health: The pandemic has been a stressful and unsettling time for everyone, and students are no exception. It’s important that we prioritize their mental health and well-being as they return to school. This could include providing additional support for students who are struggling, as well as incorporating mindfulness and stress-reduction techniques into the curriculum.

2. Address learning loss: Many students have experienced learning loss as a result of the pandemic, with disadvantaged students disproportionately affected. It’s important that we provide additional support to help these students catch up, whether through summer programs, tutoring or other interventions.

3. Rebuild relationships: The pandemic has disrupted the social and emotional bonds that are so important for students’ learning and development. As schools reopen, it will be important to focus on rebuilding these relationships and creating a sense of community within the classroom.

4. Flexibility: Finally, it’s important to be flexible and responsive to the needs of students as they return to school. This may mean providing additional support for those who are struggling, or offering alternative learning options for students who may not be ready to return to in-person learning.

Not bad, right? ChatGPT ended that essay with a typical high school writing crutch: “In conclusion …” and then a repeat of the same points. You’ll also notice the AI didn’t recognize that schools are, in fact, open again.

I also asked ChatGPT to write me an op-ed for The 74 on the topic of extraterrestrial education. The essay was coherent and relevant, citing the need for students to develop strong foundations in the science of supporting human life on other planets, environmental sustainability, and “intercultural communication and diplomacy.”

It’s fun to play with these bots, which can write sophisticated comparative essays and even draft legislation. My communications manager quipped when she saw these essays that she is already out of a job. My colleagues at Arizona State University are wondering how they will assess student essays for plagiarism, even next term. 

If these bots, which are in their earliest and most crude state, can spit out writing like this already, what will they do in two years? How many jobs will disappear in that period alone — or shift to require radically different skill sets, higher-order thinking and the ability to collaborate with humans and robots? This is a sobering reminder that the future we wrote about five years ago for CRPE’s 25th anniversary is already here. 

We said the rise of artificial intelligence and other technologies, combined with the realities of climate change and geopolitical dynamics, could lead to rising inequality, civic unrest and other chaos. On the other hand, we argued, the future is still largely within our control. If we embrace change and innovation, we can prepare the next generations of thinkers, problem solvers and leaders to not only confront the complex realities ahead, but to also discover new ways to thrive. We could try to prevent bot-written essays by confining students to pen and paper in a room with no technology. But what if, instead, we asked them to analyze the AI essays to understand why it’s important to break the rules in writing to communicate more sophisticated thoughts and ideas?

As we kick off 2023, we face the urgency of addressing the pandemic’s immediate impacts, such as learning loss. But the bot serves as a potent reminder that we will have failed this generation if we do not also use this moment to shift public education toward the future. Here’s what the bot had to say on that:

The future of work is rapidly changing, and it’s important that our education system keeps up. The jobs of tomorrow will require a combination of technical skills, critical thinking and collaboration, and our education system must adapt to meet these evolving needs.

This is a daunting challenge, but we and others have been writing and thinking about this for several years. In my 2019 New Year’s message, a year before we at CRPE became consumed with pandemic response, I wrote that we needed to more aggressively design schools for kids who are complex learners; radically reshape the high school experience; shift more student supports to out-of-school time and community organizations; make public funds more flexible and longer-term to allow for lifetime education and career retooling; and shift oversight and accountability toward learning pathways and trained customized opportunities, such as tutoring and career training. 

Today, these recommendations seem even more relevant than ever.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the CRPE blog.

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