The Search Revolution is Coming; Let us Embrace It!

Last week, I was hosting a grant workshop for educators in a former school library turned bookroom (that is a sad topic for another post). My co-worker and I asked participants what resources they wanted to write grants to benefit their students. A librarian at a school that serves students with special needs wanted to get books. “Many of our teachers don’t want students to handle books because they think they’ll destroy them,” she told us.

What a sad and negative way to think about kids.

Later that same day, an announcement came on about how students could pick up their phones from locked pouches. “This is the first day for this process,” the principal announced. She asked students for patience and to remember not to take the pouch home.

What an administrative and bureaucratic nightmare for students and staff.

In both cases, educators have negative views of student behavior. Unfortunately, this is all too common, especially when a new digital or technology tool comes out: social media? Blocked. Smart phones? Banned. ChapGPT? Access denied. I think a large part of this knee-jerk reaction is fear. But what are so many people afraid of? A tool they do not understand or know how to use? What does it mean for society and the future of today’s youth? That students will use the tool in bad and nefarious ways?

The question educators should ask ourselves is: why do you assume the worst outcomes for student behavior? What does that say? Aren’t we supposed to be teaching our students the skills, habits of mind, and emotional resiliency to be successful? Yes, we are. And to pretend something revolutionary does not exist and will not be used is nonsense. Who among us doesn’t use a phone (probably too much)?

Search Engines are changing

Tech firms don’t care that you’re not ready for chatbots. They are here in the form of ChapGPT and being integrated into browsers. What are chatbots? “Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence (AI) let users gather information via typed conversations” (The Economist, 7). How is this revolutionary? “ChapGPT can write essays in various styles, explain complex concepts, summarize text and answer trivia questions. It can even (narrowly) pass legal and medical exams. And it can synthesize knowledge from the web.” (7) And it can “explain its reasoning and provide detail.” (7). Of course, Microsoft and Google are in a horserace to integrated chatbots. On February 7th, Microsoft announced a new version of Bing complete with a Chatbot. Google, in turn, announced their chatbot, Bard. China’s Baidu is releasing their chatbot in March, called Ernie.

Obvious Pitfalls

New York City Public Schools already banned ChatGPT. Many institutions have or will ban it, afraid of rampant student plagiarism and further headaches with misinformation. If students trust everything they see online is true, what will they make of chatbots that present that answers as authoritative fact? Chatbots “often get things wrong.” (7). And what about answers to controversial or dangerous topics? Lots to take in.

So, why does the title of this blog say to “embrace it?” Because it is here, it’s not going anyway, and students will use it on their phones or home devices outside school bans. And there are a lot of good things about ChatGPT!

Building up research and writing skills

Not sure what to study about the Great Depression? Ask ChatGPT and it will give a list of topics to study about this seminal event with a blurb about each one. What a great way to narrow down a topic! Not sure how to start an essay about the importance of biodiversity? Ask ChatGPT and it will give a well-developed introduction replete with reasoning on its structure and content. Teach students how to use the excerpt as a model for how to approach a complex topic or to begin an essay. Do your students need background information on a topic to build context and understanding? Type your request in ChatGPT.

Models for information literacy skills

Do your students know the difference between facts and opinions? Claims and opinions? Persuasive versus information writing? What it means to synthesize knowledge? Type in examples in ChatGPT on the topics they are studying.

How are you supposed to teach about chatbots if its banned?

Create a free account with ChatGPT at home or download a newer version of a browser with a chatbot. Copy and paste examples and models into your lessons. School librarians are all about digital literacy. Our definition from the New York City School Library System is to help students “develop the skills and competencies to be fluent with digital tools and resources; have a culturally responsive approach to learning, sharing, and creating; acquire socio-emotional attributes; and cultivate an inquiry stance of discovery, critical thinking, and problem solving.”

To do this, we must teach students how to use chatbots effectively. Why do chatbots get things wrong? Is there misinformation? What topics are missing from the chatbots and why? Should you verify the information the chatbot presents? Locate a different perspective (there are more than two!)? Every time? Or does it depend on the topic?

Becoming better searchers

Let’s face it: many people will welcome and embrace the convenience of chatbots. But, in doing so, they must know how to critically think and evaluate the information presented, seek out multiple perspectives (especially for book reviews!), synthesize results, be able to quote it, and ask good questions. All skills embedded in the inquiry cycle, in life, are part of what we librarians have and will continue to teach students for years to come.


Author: Leanne Ellis

I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.

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