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Consumer Reports asks USDA to remove Lunchables from schools' lunch menus

In this photo illustration, a pack of Lunchables is displayed on Wednesday in San Anselmo, Calif. Consumer Reports is asking for the Department of Agriculture to eliminate Lunchables food kits from the National School Lunch Program after finding high levels of lead, sodium and cadmium in tested kits. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

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Biden seeks student debt relief for millions

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April 6, 2024 • Total solar eclipse chasers say that seeing the moon block out the sun, revealing the corona, is a life-changing experience. Kids, on the other hand, remember eating moon pies.

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These identical twins both grew up with autism, but took very different paths

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Indiana lawmakers ban cellphones in class. Now it's up to schools to figure out how

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Indiana lawmakers ban cellphones in class. Now it's up to schools to figure out how

April 3, 2024 • Many schools — but not all — in the state and around the U.S. already ban phones in class. This requires it now in Indiana.

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Baltimore bridge collapse has put the spotlight on Maryland's young Black governor

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March 20, 2024 • "Nothing in this act," the legislation states, ".... May be construed to inhibit or violate the First Amendment rights of any student or employee." But its opponents say it does just that.

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  • 08 April 2024

Ready or not, AI is coming to science education — and students have opinions

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Yan Jun (Leo) Wu speaks into a microphone while opening the Students@AI Conference

Leo Wu, an economics student at Minerva University in San Francisco, California, founded a group to discuss how AI tools can help in education. Credit: AI Consensus

The world had never heard of ChatGPT when Johnny Chang started his undergraduate programme in computer engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign in 2018. All that the public knew then about assistive artificial intelligence (AI) was that the technology powered joke-telling smart speakers or the somewhat fitful smartphone assistants.

But, by his final year in 2023, Chang says, it became impossible to walk through campus without catching glimpses of generative AI chatbots lighting up classmates’ screens.

“I was studying for my classes and exams and as I was walking around the library, I noticed that a lot of students were using ChatGPT,” says Chang, who is now a master’s student at Stanford University in California. He studies computer science and AI, and is a student leader in the discussion of AI’s role in education. “They were using it everywhere.”

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ChatGPT is one example of the large language model (LLM) tools that have exploded in popularity over the past two years. These tools work by taking user inputs in the form of written prompts or questions and generating human-like responses using the Internet as their catalogue of knowledge. As such, generative AI produces new data based on the information it has already seen.

However, these newly generated data — from works of art to university papers — often lack accuracy and creative integrity, ringing alarm bells for educators. Across academia, universities have been quick to place bans on AI tools in classrooms to combat what some fear could be an onslaught of plagiarism and misinformation. But others caution against such knee-jerk reactions.

Victor Lee, who leads Stanford University’s Data Interactions & STEM Teaching and Learning Lab, says that data suggest that levels of cheating in secondary schools did not increase with the roll-out of ChatGPT and other AI tools. He says that part of the problem facing educators is the fast-paced changes brought on by AI. These changes might seem daunting, but they’re not without benefit.

Educators must rethink the model of written assignments “painstakingly produced” by students using “static information”, says Lee. “This means many of our practices in teaching will need to change — but there are so many developments that it is hard to keep track of the state of the art.”

Despite these challenges, Chang and other student leaders think that blanket AI bans are depriving students of a potentially revolutionary educational tool. “In talking to lecturers, I noticed that there’s a gap between what educators think students do with ChatGPT and what students actually do,” Chang says. For example, rather than asking AI to write their final papers, students might use AI tools to make flashcards based on a video lecture. “There were a lot of discussions happening [on campus], but always without the students.”

Portrait of Johnny Chang at graduation

Computer-science master’s student Johnny Chang started a conference to bring educators and students together to discuss the responsible use of AI. Credit: Howie Liu

To help bridge this communications gap, Chang founded the AI x Education conference in 2023 to bring together secondary and university students and educators to have candid discussions about the future of AI in learning. The virtual conference included 60 speakers and more than 5,000 registrants. This is one of several efforts set up and led by students to ensure that they have a part in determining what responsible AI will look like at universities.

Over the past year, at events in the United States, India and Thailand, students have spoken up to share their perspectives on the future of AI tools in education. Although many students see benefits, they also worry about how AI could damage higher education.

Enhancing education

Leo Wu, an undergraduate student studying economics at Minerva University in San Francisco, California, co-founded a student group called AI Consensus . Wu and his colleagues brought together students and educators in Hyderabad, India, and in San Francisco for discussion groups and hackathons to collect real-world examples of how AI can assist learning.

From these discussions, students agreed that AI could be used to disrupt the existing learning model to make it more accessible for students with different learning styles or who face language barriers. For example, Wu says that students shared stories about using multiple AI tools to summarize a lecture or a research paper and then turn the content into a video or a collection of images. Others used AI to transform data points collected in a laboratory class into an intuitive visualization.

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Three ways ChatGPT helps me in my academic writing

For people studying in a second language, Wu says that “the language barrier [can] prevent students from communicating ideas to the fullest”. Using AI to translate these students’ original ideas or rough drafts crafted in their first language into an essay in English could be one solution to this problem, he says. Wu acknowledges that this practice could easily become problematic if students relied on AI to generate ideas, and the AI returned inaccurate translations or wrote the paper altogether.

Jomchai Chongthanakorn and Warisa Kongsantinart, undergraduate students at Mahidol University in Salaya, Thailand, presented their perspectives at the UNESCO Round Table on Generative AI and Education in Asia–Pacific last November. They point out that AI can have a role as a custom tutor to provide instant feedback for students.

“Instant feedback promotes iterative learning by enabling students to recognize and promptly correct errors, improving their comprehension and performance,” wrote Chongthanakorn and Kongsantinart in an e-mail to Nature . “Furthermore, real-time AI algorithms monitor students’ progress, pinpointing areas for development and suggesting pertinent course materials in response.”

Although private tutors could provide the same learning support, some AI tools offer a free alternative, potentially levelling the playing field for students with low incomes.

Jomchai Chongthanakorn speaks at the UNESCO Round Table on Generative AI and Education conference

Jomchai Chongthanakorn gave his thoughts on AI at a UNESCO round table in Bangkok. Credit: UNESCO/Jessy & Thanaporn

Despite the possible benefits, students also express wariness about how using AI could negatively affect their education and research. ChatGPT is notorious for ‘hallucinating’ — producing incorrect information but confidently asserting it as fact. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, physicist Rupert Croft led a workshop on responsible AI alongside physics graduate students Patrick Shaw and Yesukhei Jagvaral to discuss the role of AI in the natural sciences.

“In science, we try to come up with things that are testable — and to test things, you need to be able to reproduce them,” Croft says. But, he explains, it’s difficult to know whether things are reproducible with AI because the software operations are often a black box. “If you asked [ChatGPT] something three times, you will get three different answers because there’s an element of randomness.”

And because AI systems are prone to hallucinations and can give answers only on the basis of data they have already seen, truly new information, such as research that has not yet been published, is often beyond their grasp.

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Croft agrees that AI can assist researchers, for example, by helping astronomers to find planetary research targets in a vast array of data. But he stresses the need for critical thinking when using the tools. To use AI responsibly, Croft argued in the workshop, researchers must understand the reasoning that led to an AI’s conclusion. To take a tool’s answer simply on its word alone would be irresponsible.

“We’re already working at the edge of what we understand” in scientific enquiry, Shaw says. “Then you’re trying to learn something about this thing that we barely understand using a tool we barely understand.”

These lessons also apply to undergraduate science education, but Shaw says that he’s yet to see AI play a large part in the courses he teaches. At the end of the day, he says, AI tools such as ChatGPT “are language models — they’re really pretty terrible at quantitative reasoning”.

Shaw says it’s obvious when students have used an AI on their physics problems, because they are more likely to have either incorrect solutions or inconsistent logic throughout. But as AI tools improve, those tells could become harder to detect.

Chongthanakorn and Kongsantinart say that one of the biggest lessons they took away from the UNESCO round table was that AI is a “double-edged sword”. Although it might help with some aspects of learning, they say, students should be wary of over-reliance on the technology, which could reduce human interaction and opportunities for learning and growth.

“In our opinion, AI has a lot of potential to help students learn, and can improve the student learning curve,” Chongthanakorn and Kongsantinart wrote in their e-mail. But “this technology should be used only to assist instructors or as a secondary tool”, and not as the main method of teaching, they say.

Equal access

Tamara Paris is a master’s student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, studying ethics in AI and robotics. She says that students should also carefully consider the privacy issues and inequities created by AI tools.

Some academics avoid using certain AI systems owing to privacy concerns about whether AI companies will misuse or sell user data, she says. Paris notes that widespread use of AI could create “unjust disparities” between students if knowledge or access to these tools isn’t equal.

Portrait of Tamara Paris

Tamara Paris says not all students have equal access to AI tools. Credit: McCall Macbain Scholarship at McGill

“Some students are very aware that AIs exist, and others are not,” Paris says. “Some students can afford to pay for subscriptions to AIs, and others cannot.”

One way to address these concerns, says Chang, is to teach students and educators about the flaws of AI and its responsible use as early as possible. “Students are already accessing these tools through [integrated apps] like Snapchat” at school, Chang says.

In addition to learning about hallucinations and inaccuracies, students should also be taught how AI can perpetuate the biases already found in our society, such as discriminating against people from under-represented groups, Chang says. These issues are exacerbated by the black-box nature of AI — often, even the engineers who built these tools don’t know exactly how an AI makes its decisions.

Beyond AI literacy, Lee says that proactive, clear guidelines for AI use will be key. At some universities, academics are carving out these boundaries themselves, with some banning the use of AI tools for certain classes and others asking students to engage with AI for assignments. Scientific journals are also implementing guidelines for AI use when writing papers and peer reviews that range from outright bans to emphasizing transparent use .

Lee says that instructors should clearly communicate to students when AI can and cannot be used for assignments and, importantly, signal the reasons behind those decisions. “We also need students to uphold honesty and disclosure — for some assignments, I am completely fine with students using AI support, but I expect them to disclose it and be clear how it was used.”

For instance, Lee says he’s OK with students using AI in courses such as digital fabrication — AI-generated images are used for laser-cutting assignments — or in learning-theory courses that explore AI’s risks and benefits.

For now, the application of AI in education is a constantly moving target, and the best practices for its use will be as varied and nuanced as the subjects it is applied to. The inclusion of student voices will be crucial to help those in higher education work out where those boundaries should be and to ensure the equitable and beneficial use of AI tools. After all, they aren’t going away.

“It is impossible to completely ban the use of AIs in the academic environment,” Paris says. “Rather than prohibiting them, it is more important to rethink courses around AIs.”

Nature 628 , 459-461 (2024)


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Jessica Grose

Get tech out of the classroom before it’s too late.

An illustration of a large open laptop computer with many teeth, biting down on a small schoolhouse.

By Jessica Grose

Opinion Writer

Jaime Lewis noticed that her eighth-grade son’s grades were slipping several months ago. She suspected it was because he was watching YouTube during class on his school-issued laptop, and her suspicions were validated. “I heard this from two of his teachers and confirmed with my son: Yes, he watches YouTube during class, and no, he doesn’t think he can stop. In fact, he opted out of retaking a math test he’d failed, just so he could watch YouTube,” she said.

She decided to do something about it. Lewis told me that she got together with other parents who were concerned about the unfettered use of school-sanctioned technology in San Luis Coastal Unified School District, their district in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Because they knew that it wasn’t realistic to ask for the removal of the laptops entirely, they went for what they saw as an achievable win: blocking YouTube from students’ devices. A few weeks ago, they had a meeting with the district superintendent and several other administrators, including the tech director.

To bolster their case, Lewis and her allies put together a video compilation of clips that elementary and middle school children had gotten past the district’s content filters.

Their video opens on images of nooses being fitted around the necks of the terrified women in the TV adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It ends with the notoriously violent “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence from “A Clockwork Orange.” (Several versions of this scene are available on YouTube. The one she pointed me to included “rape scene” in the title.) Their video was part of a PowerPoint presentation filled with statements from other parents and school staff members, including one from a middle school assistant principal, who said, “I don’t know how often teachers are using YouTube in their curriculum.”

That acknowledgment gets to the heart of the problem with screens in schools. I heard from many parents who said that even when they asked district leaders how much time kids were spending on their screens, they couldn’t get straight answers; no one seemed to know, and no one seemed to be keeping track.

Eric Prater, the superintendent of the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, told me that he didn’t realize how much was getting through the schools’ content filters until Lewis and her fellow parents raised concerns. “Our tech department, as I found out from the meeting, spends quite a lot of time blocking certain websites,” he said. “It’s a quite time-consuming situation that I personally was not aware of.” He added that he’s grateful this was brought to his attention.

I don’t think educators are the bad guys here. Neither does Lewis. In general, educators want the best for students. The bad guys, as I see it, are tech companies.

One way or another, we’ve allowed Big Tech’s tentacles into absolutely every aspect of our children’s education, with very little oversight and no real proof that their devices or programs improve educational outcomes. Last year Collin Binkley at The Associated Press analyzed public records and found that “many of the largest school systems spent tens of millions of dollars in pandemic money on software and services from tech companies, including licenses for apps, games and tutoring websites.” However, he continued, schools “have little or no evidence the programs helped students.”

It’s not just waste, very likely, of taxpayer money that’s at issue. After reading many of the over 900 responses from parents and educators to my questionnaire about tech in schools and from the many conversations I had over the past few weeks with readers, I’m convinced that the downsides of tech in schools far outweigh the benefits.

Though tech’s incursion into America’s public schools — particularly our overreliance on devices — hyperaccelerated in 2020, it started well before the Covid-19 pandemic. Google, which provides the operating system for lower-cost Chromebooks and is owned by the same parent company as YouTube, is a big player in the school laptop space, though I also heard from many parents and teachers whose schools supply students with other types and brands of devices.

As my newsroom colleague Natasha Singer reported in 2017 (by which point “half the nation’s primary- and secondary-school students” were, according to Google, using its education apps), “Google makes $30 per device by selling management services for the millions of Chromebooks that ship to schools. But by habituating students to its offerings at a young age, Google obtains something much more valuable”: potential lifetime customers.

The issue goes beyond access to age-inappropriate clips or general distraction during school hours. Several parents related stories of even kindergartners reading almost exclusively on iPads because their school districts had phased out hard-copy books and writing materials after shifting to digital-only curriculums. There’s evidence that this is harmful: A 2019 analysis of the literature concluded that “readers may be more efficient and aware of their performance when reading from paper compared to screens.”

“It seems to be a constant battle between fighting for the students’ active attention (because their brains are now hard-wired for the instant gratification of TikTok and YouTube videos) and making sure they aren’t going to sites outside of the dozens they should be,” Nicole Post, who teaches at a public elementary school in Missouri, wrote to me. “It took months for students to listen to me tell a story or engage in a read-aloud. I’m distressed at the level of technology we’ve socialized them to believe is normal. I would give anything for a math or social studies textbook.”

I’ve heard about kids disregarding teachers who tried to limit tech use, fine motor skills atrophying because students rarely used pencils and children whose learning was ultimately stymied by the tech that initially helped them — for example, students learning English as a second language becoming too reliant on translation apps rather than becoming fluent.

Some teachers said they have programs that block certain sites and games, but those programs can be cumbersome. Some said they have software, like GoGuardian, that allows them to see the screens of all the students in their classes at once. But classroom time is zero sum: Teachers are either teaching or acting like prison wardens; they can’t do both at the same time.

Resources are finite. Software costs money . Replacing defunct or outdated laptops costs money . When it comes to I.T., many schools are understaffed . More of the money being spent on tech and the maintenance and training around the use of that tech could be spent on other things, like actual books. And badly monitored and used tech has the most potential for harm.

I’ve considered the counterarguments: Kids who’d be distracted by tech would find something else to distract them; K-12 students need to gain familiarity with tech to instill some vague work force readiness.

But on the first point, I think other forms of distraction — like talking to friends, doodling and daydreaming — are better than playing video games or watching YouTube because they at least involve children engaging with other children or their own minds. And there’s research that suggests laptops are uniquely distracting . One 2013 study found that even being next to a student who is multitasking on a computer can hurt a student’s test scores.

On the second point, you can have designated classes to teach children how to keyboard, code or use software that don’t require them to have laptops in their hands throughout the school day. And considering that various tech companies are developing artificial intelligence that, we’re meant to understand, will upend work as we know it , whatever tech skills we’re currently teaching will probably be obsolete by the time students enter the work force anyway. By then, it’ll be too late to claw back the brain space of our nation’s children that we’ve already ceded. And for what? So today’s grade schoolers can be really, really good at making PowerPoint presentations like the ones they might one day make as white-collar adults?

That’s the part that I can’t shake: We’ve let tech companies and their products set the terms of the argument about what education should be, and too many people, myself included, didn’t initially realize it. Companies never had to prove that devices or software, broadly speaking, helped students learn before those devices had wormed their way into America’s public schools. And now the onus is on parents to marshal arguments about the detriments of tech in schools.

Holly Coleman, a parent of two who lives in Kansas and is a substitute teacher in her district, describes what students are losing:

They can type quickly but struggle to write legibly. They can find info about any topic on the internet but can’t discuss that topic using recall, creativity or critical thinking. They can make a beautiful PowerPoint or Keynote in 20 minutes but can’t write a three-page paper or hand-make a poster board. Their textbooks are all online, which is great for the seams on their backpack, but tangible pages under your fingers literally connect you to the material you’re reading and learning. These kids do not know how to move through their day without a device in their hand and under their fingertips. They never even get the chance to disconnect from their tech and reconnect with one another through eye contact and conversation.

Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” prescribes phone-free schools as a way to remedy some of the challenges facing America’s children. I agree that there’s no place for smartphones on a K-12 campus. But if you take away the phones and the kids still have near-constant internet connectivity on devices they have with them in every class, the problem won’t go away.

When Covid hit and screens became the only way for millions of kids to “attend” school, not having a personal device became an equity issue. But we’re getting to a point where the opposite may be true. According to the responses to my questionnaire, during the remote-school era, private schools seemed to rely far less on screens than public schools, and many educators said that they deliberately chose lower-tech school environments for their own children — much the same way that some tech workers intentionally send their kids to screen-free schools.

We need to reframe the entire conversation around tech in schools because it’s far from clear that we’re getting the results we want as a society and because parents are in a defensive crouch, afraid to appear anti-progress or unwilling to prepare the next generation for the future. “I feel like a baby boomer attacking like this,” said Lewis.

But the drawbacks of constant screen time in schools go beyond data privacy, job security and whether a specific app increases math performance by a standard deviation. As Lewis put it, using tech in the classroom makes students “so passive, and it requires so little agency and initiative.” She added, “I’m very concerned about the species’ ability to survive and the ability to think critically and the importance of critical thinking outside of getting a job.”

If we don’t hit pause now and try to roll back some of the excesses, we’ll be doing our children — and society — a profound disservice.

The good news is that sometimes when the stakes become clear, educators respond: In May, Dr. Prater said, “we’re going to remove access to YouTube from our district devices for students.” He added that teachers will still be able to get access to YouTube if they want to show instructional videos. The district is also rethinking its phone policy to cut down on personal device use in the classroom. “For me,” he said, “it’s all about how do you find the common-sense approach, going forward, and match that up with good old-fashioned hands-on learning?” He knows technology can cause “a great deal of harm if we’re not careful.”

Jessica Grose is an Opinion writer for The Times, covering family, religion, education, culture and the way we live now.


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