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Will AI Chatbots Raise Digital Equity Concerns for Students?

Some ed-tech experts say the need to close the digital divide will only grow more urgent as Internet-based artificial intelligence tools become commonplace in schools and universities.

A businessperson holding up a tablet that says "equity" on with with symbols like bar and line graphs hovering in the air around it.
The power of artificial intelligence chatbot tools like ChatGPT has K-12 and postsecondary educators both wary of them and looking for ways to incorporate them into curricula and lesson planning. But as AI chatbots inevitably become more ubiquitous in education, some educators and digital equity advocates are concerned the change could exacerbate disadvantages for students with limited or no access to broadband and devices at home.

According to Pete Just, executive director of the Indiana Chief Technology Officer’s Council and board member of the the ed-tech advocacy group Consortium for School Networking, student access to AI generative text technologies could be considered part of a larger national conversation around digital equity amid local, state and federal efforts to expand access to broadband and make devices available to students for digital learning. Rather than considering banning AI tools like ChatGPT as some schools and institutions have done, he said, educators should encourage the use of and access to AI chatbots as supplemental to enhance lessons.

He noted that AI tools like ChatGPT could prove helpful for students similar to AI tools for grading and lesson planning that have emerged in recent years, adding that some instructors across grade levels are now considering using it as a preliminary research tool to beat writer’s block on essay assignments, among other applications. He noted that the topic of the tool itself may even help generate classroom discussions on AI ethics in relevant courses as the tech industry and society at large explore the use of AI.

“We’re talking about a significant shift in resources available to educators and to students, much like the calculator was for math class, much like the Internet was,” he said. “The same kind of fears happened — ‘It’s going to allow kids to cheat.’ Kids have been cheating for a long time. … It’s a matter of how we as educators will respond to a change that’s happening in society, not just impacting assignments.

“We should be teaching students how to properly use this tool to do their work a little bit better, because students get mental blocks and writer’s block and things like that, as well,” he added. “If you’re a brick layer, this tool is the trowel. If you’re a carpenter, this tool is the saw. It’s not just any tool. It’s a critical tool.”

Austin O’Brien, an associate professor of computer science at Dakota State University who teaches courses on AI, said the disadvantages of ChatGPT to students without adequate tech access will be very real, but “not necessarily new” to the ed-tech world.

“The ability for other students to get a leg up by using ChatGPT for schoolwork further adds to the digital divide between those with easy access to the Internet and those without,” he said in an emailed statement. “The advantages from having easy access to ChatGPT can include inspiration for written works, which is one of the more popular uses of ChatGPT at the moment, and also simply asking for directions on how to approach certain problems. The hardest part for anyone learning something new is identifying what we don’t know. Simply asking a simple question, such as, ‘What do I need to consider when changing a heating element in my water heater’ — perhaps from personal experience — can simply spell out issues that someone with little experience wouldn’t even know to ask about.”

Niu Gao, a K-12 researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), said that while schools have made recent strides to expand Internet access and device availability for remote learning with the help of local, state and federal relief funds, the digital divide is still far from closed in many remote and low-income communities, which may lead to some tech skills gaps. She added that digital literacy — whether kids have the necessary skills and knowledge to take advantage of emerging tools like ChatGPT — is another component to consider when it comes to digital equity.

“We tracked the digital equity gap in terms of broadband access throughout the pandemic, and we know that in the spring of 2021, a year into the pandemic in the state of California, we had 40 percent of Latino students and [many] low-income students without reliable broadband access, despite a lot of effort from the schools, the state and federal government in trying to expand access,” she said. “I think there definitely is an equity concern there. Students cannot use GPT when they don’t have [device and Internet] access.”

O’Brien said that luckily, once the hurdle of device and Internet access is crossed, chatbot tools like ChatGPT are relatively simple to use, making them easy to adopt in teaching and learning applications.

“I think you’ll find a lack of digital equity wherever there are obstacles to access technology, whether that be the cost for devices and services for low-income and poverty-stricken areas, to reliable Internet connections in rural and remote places, current language implementations, and low technology literacy. Schools are no exception to these obstacles, which will adversely affect their students’ ability to learn to use and become comfortable with these technologies,” he said in an emailed statement to Government Technology. “The complex calculations that drive the results [from ChatGPT] are happening on OpenAI’s end, which means that any device that can run a web browser can access their current free research preview, which is what most of us have been interacting with. The data going back and forth between our devices and the AI itself is text data, which is relatively small compared to other media, such as images, video, or sound files.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article misstated Pete Just's title with the Indiana Chief Technology Officer’s Council.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.