Since ChatGPT launched Nov. 30, the artificial intelligence technology has sparked concerns about the potential impact on education, including students' use of the technology to plagiarize schoolwork.
Districts that have already blocked access to ChatGPT include New York City Public Schools, Los Angeles Unified School District and Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, according to Forbes.
The chatbot, created by San Francisco-based OpenAI, generates human-like responses based on prompts given by users. The free research preview of ChatGPT can be used for anything from explaining quantum computing in simple terms to gathering creative ideas for a 10-year-old’s birthday, as well as writing essays, poems, cover letters and even movie scripts.
OpenAI announced on Jan. 31 the release of an “AI classifier” tool trained to distinguish between human and AI-written text “from a variety of providers.” However, the company cautioned that the classifier “is not fully reliable.”
Some educators have also advised against knee-jerk reactions to the tech.
“I absolutely understand the desire to panic. It is a scary prospect, the idea that students can have an essay entirely written for them with a prompt, that couldn’t be detected on a plagiarism scanner,” said Shana Ramin, a school technology integration specialist in Michigan and former middle school teacher. “But there are also a lot of potential benefits that can come from this.”
Don’t stop at blocking access
While Washington's Seattle Public Schools has blocked access to ChatGPT on devices issued to students, the district allows teachers to access and leverage it as a learning tool for students, said Tim Robinson, the district’s lead media relations specialist.
However, blocking access to ChatGPT on school devices doesn’t prevent students from accessing it on their personal devices, said Dan Lewer, an AP history teacher named Hawaii’s 2020 History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute. That, in turn, puts students who don’t own any personal devices at a disadvantage, he said.
Lewer, whose “History for Humans” features educational videos that teachers can use in the classroom, has talked about how ChatGPT can be used in the classroom on his TikTok channel with over 18,000 followers.
Seattle Public Schools is having ongoing discussions about ChatGPT and planned to host conversations among educators, school leaders and its central office. “We can't afford to ignore it,” Robinson said.
The district’s discussions include the potential educational applications of ChatGPT, Robinson said.
“Students could use it as a personal tutor, providing feedback and new ideas, exposing them to new styles or techniques, starting new lines of thinking and research,” Robinson said. Likewise, educators could use it to train students to be better critical thinkers and boost their creativity in the classroom, or to produce comments and instant feedback for formative assessments — a use for which AI-powered tools like Gradescope already exist — he said.
Seattle Public Schools is also looking at creating “how to use these (AI) tools for learning" guidance for educators and students, Robinson added.
If an assignment can be easily performed by ChatGPT, teachers could reconsider the value of that particular assignment, said Ramin, who writes about teaching and technology on her website, Hello, Teacher Lady.
“Are there ways to make that assignment better? Are there ways to modify it, and what we are doing as teachers, so that it is more AI-proof?” she said. “As a teacher, I was never a fan of the five-paragraph essay. If AI can do that, maybe we need to be rethinking traditional assignments.”
Rather than asking for an essay, teachers could ask students to create a podcast, infographic or other creative work to complete an assignment, Ramin said. “For example, instead of asking them to write a paragraph about a book about symbolism, maybe they could make a playlist of songs for the main character that integrates some symbolism into the story.”
Save teachers’ time
ChatGPT can quickly perform tasks for which teachers typically spend “countless hours,” such as researching and writing classroom prompts and materials, Lewer said. The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a mass exodus of teachers from classrooms across the country, so this is a particularly good time to lessen their workload, he added.
For example, ChatGPT can be a great tool to save teachers time to come up with project ideas, said Lewer, who said he’s spent “a few dozen hours” playing around with the technology.
The chatbot can produce project ideas with exact prompts and parameters — such as, “Apply the lessons of World War II to modern political speech” — and can even be asked to tailor them to Common Core and state-specific standards, Lewer said. Teachers can also ask ChatGPT to write academic text with wrong information, and teachers can use that as an assignment for students to correct.
Ramin agreed, adding that ChatGPT and other AI can be used by teachers “as a jumping off point.”
“Any time a teacher can save time is going to be helpful, because they can spend more time on more meaningful things,” she said.
Make learning more accessible
History teachers like to use primary sources, but the drawback is that the language used in ancient and classical texts can be hard to comprehend for students, Lewer said. To make those texts more accessible, teachers can copy and paste text into ChatGPT and direct it to come up with modernized versions that differ based on grade level, he said.
ChatGPT can also be used for fun activities, Lewer said. For example, teachers could ask ChatGPT to pretend it’s a historical figure like, say, Thomas Jefferson, and have a question-and-answer session with the chatbot. Students could then analyze the transcript of the session, fact-check it and discuss it, he said.
Additionally, ChatGPT can be asked to write summaries of historical topics, such as the civil rights movement. Teachers can then have students compare those summaries to the information in their textbooks, as well as interpretations by, say, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X.
“I call it ‘history lab’ — they have to piece together what is the most accurate version,” Lewer said.
Discuss AI in the classroom
There are software programs and apps that work on detecting whether writing was created by humans or generated by AI. In addition, Open AI is reportedly working on introducing a “watermark” that would make it easy to detect whether something was created by AI.
Still, it’s helpful for teachers to know the types and styles of content produced by ChatGPT and other AI so they can fine-tune their own detection of potential plagiarism, Ramin said. For example, the chatbot can generate somewhat dry and formulaic content, she said.
Most importantly, teachers should discuss ChatGPT with students, Ramin and Lewer said.
“We talk about plagiarism every year: how to paraphrase, cite your sources… and we need to add AI to that conversation,” Ramin said. “You can’t just talk about copying from the internet. You have to talk about what is an ethical use of AI and what is an unethical use of AI, and not assume that students know what that means.”
Robinson pointed out that as teaching policies, procedures and best practices evolve, it may be necessary to adjust student performance assessment metrics as related to the use of ChatGPT. “For example, at one point in time, internet searches used during research may have been considered ‘cheating,’” he said. “Using the internet and searching as part of overall research is now, of course, widely accepted.”
AI is here to stay, so teachers might as well begin to embrace it while staying focused on the bedrock of their role, Ramin and Lewer said.
“Teaching fundamentally is about building relationships, so that you’re creating ecosystems of learning in the classroom so students have a guide, a support and a network to learn from,” Lewer said. “That’s really what teachers’ skills are.”