Superintendent clarifies stance on ChatGPT: ‘Not going to hide from it’


Celina Lee

Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin speaks at a press conference on a range of education-related issues last Friday in the MAC. Among other topics, Austin clarified the reasoning behind his stance on ChatGPT from the previous week’s announcement. “We’re focusing on ChatGPT,” Austin said. “It’s one of thousands of AI programs that are out there right now. When it first got attention, there was already more coming up that will help students, and more coming up that would harm students and create safety issues.”

Amid a nationwide increase in ChatGPT usage throughout schools, Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin is setting the goal of embracing ChatGPT moving forward in a press conference Friday last week with The Paly Voice. 

In a Paly Voice-sponsored press conference, Austin addressed the implementation of ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence chatbot able to respond to a wide range of prompts with human-like text responses, within PAUSD as school districts across the country to ban the use of the AI in an attempt to curtail student cheating. 

Despite these concerns, Austin said in a recent Superintendent’s Update PAUSD will be looking to use ChatGPT and other generative AI as an accepted resource for the district.

“The Palo Alto Unified School District is an example of a district committed to embracing emerging technologies and innovative approaches to education,” Austin wrote in the Update. “PAUSD recognizes the potential of Chat GPT to enhance learning outcomes and improve efficiency.” 

Austin said this decision follows in the footsteps of other schools and universities including Stanford, which are promoting transparency with AI usage. 

“I met with several of the vice presidents from Stanford University and asked them how Stanford was handling this,” Austin said. “They said right now there are three groups: Ignore it [ChatGPT] like it doesn’t exist and just keep business as usual, restricting it, so going back to essays and blue books, which is old school, and the third is, tell us [teachers and professors] how you used AI in the preparation of your submission. I think number three is the way of the future.” 

According to English 9A and AP Language and Composition teacher Hunter Reardon, ChatGPT usage can easily be turned into a classroom tool to help students gather ideas for a jumping-off point.

“I’m thinking about the argument unit in AP Lang and doing that [using ChatGPT] in front of everybody,” Reardon said. “Like let’s look at ChatGPT, let’s put it on the projection screen, I’m going to drop the prompt in here, and let’s see what comes up. Oh hey, that’s cool, you want to use that, [response] go right ahead. But you better write it in your own way.” 

Austin said that AI like ChatGPT is facilitating a shift in the idea of what is considered cheating.

“We’re going to have to start thinking again about what is cheating,” Austin said. “Because I think that definition is going to change.”

Although the prospect of ChatGPT has been intimidating to educators, Austin said he has already implemented its usage himself and within the district office. 

“If people ask, ‘Do you use it [Chat GPT], Superintendent Austin in your work?’ My answer is yes,” Austin said. “I don’t use it to write original content with my voice, but I use it to revise and check for things like tone, and it really helps give good suggestions. … For our district office, I’ve encouraged everyone to start using it, and that includes brainstorming.” 

The district’s welcoming stance towards ChatGPT is a view that many Paly English teachers have come to as well, according to Reardon. 

“The whole Paly English Department got together and had a meeting about it [ChatGPT], and we talked about it,” Reardon said. “We just realized that for a lot of reasons, we don’t need to worry that much.”

According to Austin, the district’s open stance towards ChatGPT represents a direction for future decision-making and will require further discussion to enact any specific policy.

“By the time you come up with rules and parameters, it [AI] will have evolved in a way that you’re just solving problems for something that no longer exists,” Austin said. “We have an ad-hoc [committee] just for AI starting in the fall.”

Austin said that although he knows AI like ChatGPT isn’t perfect, it will certainly shape the future of education. 

“This is not an, ‘Everything is great about it [AI],’” Austin said. “It’s just that we’re not going to hide from it [AI].”