Let’s be real, who wouldn’t want a robot that can help you write your essay in a fraction of the time?
The question may be rhetorical, but it’s one that has been troubling educators ever since OpenAI’s text-generating chatbot, ChatGPT, broke the internet by reaching 1 million users in just five days. It’s a question that has provoked some school districts to block access to the tool on school networks and computers. And depending on whom you ask, it’s a question that’s stirring up either excitement or fear about the potential of artificial intelligence.
The question was, incidentally, posed by ChatGPT itself when it was prompted to write an article about how the future of AI will impact education — with instructions to make the text both intelligent and humorous. The chatbot makes a valiant effort to fulfill the parameters of its assignment, and it certainly exceeds the capabilities of previous AI tools like Alexa or Siri. But although the new chatbot’s ability to generate human-sounding text has generated a lot of buzz since its release in November, the robot apocalypse is hardly nigh.
“With any new technology we tend to overestimate its abilities in the short term and underestimate its abilities in the long term,” says ISTE CEO Richard Culatta.
In fact, now is a good time for educators to check their expectations — both the bad and the good — regarding what AI can do.
“It’s easy to get hyped and excited about something, or even really fearful, without realizing its limitations,” says Michelle Zimmerman, director of innovative teaching and learning sciences at Renton Prep Christian School and author of the book Teaching AI: Exploring New Frontiers for Learning.
Artificial intelligence is poised to change education in ways we’ve hardly begun to anticipate, and ChatGPT’s appearance serves as a reminder that teachers need to be ready to adapt quickly to sudden and exponential advancements in technology. If students can now use AI to complete homework assignments or craft a convincing essay for class, for example, educators may need to rethink their approach to assessments and the types of homework they assign.
The key is to not avoid ChatGPT, or try to prevent students from accessing it, but to teach them how to use it as a springboard to take their creativity and learning even further.
Instead of going into reactionary mode and trying to prevent AI from disrupting the way school is currently done, Zimmerman encourages educators to cultivate an attitude of curiosity toward new tools like ChatGPT. “What does it do right now, what’s possible for it to do, and what can we do to prepare our young people for the wide range of applications in their lifetimes?”
“This is a tool students will need to be successful,” Culatta adds. “It will be expected that they know how to use AI in their future jobs and learning, and this is a great opportunity now, under the guidance and mentorship of teachers, for them to learn responsible use of the technology.”
Important conversations about ChatGPT
When educators shy away from using AI in the classroom, they’re not only neglecting to build necessary career and life skills for the future, they’re also missing a valuable opportunity to have important conversations with students about the limitations and ethics of using AI.
“There’s an important conversation we need to have, which is asking what skills should be uniquely human skills,” Culatta says. “AI does a very good job in some contexts, but I think there is a conversation that needs to be had about where AI is helpful and where it’s not.
“We have to learn how to have better conversations about using technology, especially with young people. It’s one of our weakest skills as a society.”
One of the most important lessons to teach students about AI is to help them understand the difference between using technology to do their work for them as opposed to using technology to support them in doing their work, says Deb Norton, a high school technology integration specialist and ISTE U instructor.
“Is it wrong to ask ChatGPT to write your essay and turn it in as your own work? Absolutely,” says Norton, who teaches a course on Artificial Intelligence Explorations and Their Practical Use in Schools. “So where is the line between plagiarizing and cheating versus using it to benefit a student? Well, they could ask ChatGPT to suggest several possible topics for an essay or ask it to write an outline or even suggest a first draft on the topic. They can then edit and change it, add to it, fact-check it and make sure it’s accurate. Those kinds of skills can take students a long way post-graduation.”
The bottom line is that teachers should, at minimum, be talking to students about the basic do’s and don’ts of ChatGPT.
The first don’t?
“Don’t shy away from it,” Norton says.
Exploring the limitations of AI
One thing educators need to understand about ChatGPT is that it isn’t perfect. At first glance, it can seemingly craft an intelligent and cogent essay on any topic. It can also perform research, compose a story or poem and write code.
But a closer look reveals noticeable flaws in the chatbot’s performance.
“There’s still a gap in its ability to capture the nuance, storytelling and emotion humans have the capacity to develop,” Zimmerman says. “For someone who’s not well-versed in a particular topic, they can’t really tell. It looks like a human-written phrase, conversation or lesson plan. But if you’re an expert in that field, it becomes obvious that the chatbot is drawing information from the more common things that show up on the internet and not necessarily addressing some of the finer points.”
Misinformation, disinformation and bias are also flaws to be aware of when using ChatGPT to generate text.
Because the chatbot is not necessarily pulling from the most credible sources, it’s a mistake to assume the information it presents is always accurate.
“I can Google anything and get plenty of information, but everything you Google has a URL attached to it so you can find the sources and look up their credibility,” Norton says. “With a chatbot, it’s different. There is no citing, no telling where the information is coming from. It’s a great learning target for students. Let’s circle back to the fact that we can’t trust everything just because it’s on the internet or created by a chatbot.”
One way to incorporate ChatGPT in the classroom is to investigate these flaws by allowing students to use text from the chatbot as a starting point for their research and then instructing them to look for corroborating evidence, as well as counter-examples, from other sources. Then prompt them to take the research even further by asking what more they might be able to find on the subject. Nudging students toward curiosity helps them lean into their uniquely human traits that AI can’t replicate, Zimmerman says.
Another way to explore the limitations of ChatGPT is to use it to generate a story or essay and then have students critique or revise it, keeping an eye out for areas in the text where a human might do things differently or better.
“Even though a machine can pull together ideas and concepts, we have the ability to bring in more subtle references to allegories and art in a way that’s human,” she says.
For teachers who are concerned about students using the chatbot to cheat on written assignments, the solution could be as simple as changing the parameters of the assignment to make it “AI-proof,” redirecting students to use the technology as a learning aid rather than a cheating aid.
Asking students to provide in-text citations on a research paper, for example, would require them to back up the chatbot’s research by digging up the sources of information themselves. While it’s not exactly the same as conducting their own initial research, they’re learning a skill that will prove valuable in an AI-powered workplace while also discovering why it’s important to scrutinize information provided by AI tools.
“The number one concern for schools is often about cheating,” Culatta says. “But actually if cheating with AI is a problem, then attention probably needs to be put on designing better assessments.”
Using ChatGPT as a creative launchpad
One area where ChatGPT has the potential to shine is in its ability to spark ideas and provide a starting point for students’ creativity. For students who struggle with creative work, ChatGPT can offer a valuable entry point into the creative process, Zimmerman says.
“Some kids can stare at the blank page or blank screen for a long time. They may feel unbounded because they’re used to having very clear parameters. Having something that gives them a nudge toward an idea or a place to start, like a chatbot that pulls from a common body of answers or ideas, can get kids to think about how to make their work stand out and be unique or unexpected.”
A student who is stuck on a piece of creative writing, for example, can ask the chatbot for suggestions on how to proceed. The tool can also help generate outlines, first drafts and lists of ideas to use as jumping-off points.
Tapping into student creativity
Creating with AI tools is nothing new. Artists and musicians have already been using tools like Dall-E and Amper Music (which has since been acquired by Shutterstock) to create AI-generated compositions. While ChatGPT is the first text generator capable of producing human-like text, it raises the same questions other creative fields are already grappling with.
For example, if AI can create for us, then why put any effort into being creative?
“We need to help kids see the value of their curiosity and creativity,” Zimmerman says. By encouraging students to view AI-generated work as a starting point rather than a finished product, “we’re telling kids these are the things we see of value in you — your stories, your cultural backgrounds, your difficulties and successes. You bring your own understanding to how you approach a problem. That’s a value add. You have a unique perspective, you have something different to offer to the world.”
Creating with AI also offers the opportunity to explore the gray area between plagiarism versus remixing or building upon someone else’s work to create something new — think memes or musicians who sample other artists’ work in their own music.
“How do you take credit for it, how do you give credit for it and how do you determine what was uniquely your contribution?” Zimmerman says. “Young people are used to the idea of remixing, so the concept of plagiarism feels very disjointed for kids today.”
One thing educators might want to consider is creating a checklist for how to use ChatGPT as a writing aid, Norton suggests.
“If I ask a chatbot to generate some writing for me, what do I need to do to that to make it mine and make it into something I can turn in? How can I edit it so it has my personal touch on it? It would be cool to have that kind of checklist.”
“If teachers see themselves as only grading and scoring a final product, it will feel impossible to ‘control’ ChatGPT, and they’ll miss creative opportunities to ask how to use the tool to nudge creative thinking and make connections that AI will not likely see on its own,” Zimmerman says. “Sure, use it as a base, then show me what you see, how you combine your knowledge, experience and the way you look at the world to tell me something new. Then show me how your thinking changes.”
Above all, don’t forget that AI still has its limitations.
As ChatGPT itself says, “it’s time to embrace the robot and see what it can do for us. After all, the future of education is in our hands, and we might as well make it as intelligent and humorous as possible.”