As a teacher, I’ve seen a great deal of technology come and go. From overhead projectors to LCD projectors, from chalkboards to smartboards, from having students passing notes to having students instantaneously accessing their friends, movies and video games via cell phones, the classroom has certainly undergone a transformative shift due to technology.
However, a technological innovation has recently emerged from the digital primordial ooze that is, beyond a doubt, a complete game changer.
Launched in November of 2022, an app called ChatGPT has already caused considerable consternation in the educational world. In fact, just a few days ago, officials in the New York City school system moved to block the program from being accessed via school computers.
ChatGPT is a chatbot built using the GPT (Generative Pretrained Transformer) language model. It is capable of generating human-like text in a conversational manner, making it seem as if it is having a conversation with a person. ChatGPT can be used for a variety of purposes, including customer service, providing information, and even just for entertainment. It is trained on a large dataset of human conversations, allowing it to understand and respond to a wide range of topics and questions. ChatGPT is a powerful tool that can assist with tasks, answer questions, and even carry out simple conversations with users.
Sounds benign enough I know. Until, perhaps, I tell you that the paragraph you just read was generated by the chatbot itself when I asked it to define itself in 50 words.
Me: Can you define ChatGPT in 40 words?
ChatBot: ChatGPT is a chatbot that uses the GPT language model to generate human-like text. It can be used for customer service, providing information, and entertainment. It is trained on a large dataset of human conversations and can understand and respond to a variety of topics. ChatGPT can assist with tasks, answer questions, and carry out simple conversations.
Me: How about in 25 words?
ChatBot: ChatGPT is a chatbot that uses GPT to generate human-like text and assist with tasks, answer questions, and carry out simple conversations. It is trained on human conversations.
This exchange (Grant here again, by the way) happened in real time. I typed in my questions and received an instantaneous response. I was also given the option to regenerate a response if I did not like the one I received. I regenerated my request for a 25 word definition and got this re-worded answer:
ChatBot: ChatGPT is a chatbot that uses the GPT language model to generate human-like text and carry out conversations. It is trained on a large dataset of human conversations and can assist with tasks and answer questions.
Then I got a bit cross.
Me: I don’t like that answer.
ChatBot: I’m sorry if my previous answer did not fully meet your expectations. Is there something specific you would like to know about ChatGPT, or do you have any other questions?
Yup, the darn thing apologized.
The implications are fairly obvious. You need a 1000 words on the conflict between Iago and Othello? Done. You need to explain the causes of WWI? Done. You want help balancing a chemical equation? The bot will not only give you the answer, it will explain the process.
It can even cite its sources. As I am writing this piece, I am watching the bot generate 300 words on the American Revolution, in real time, parentheses, bibliography and all. In the time it took me to describe the process to you here, the essay was completed.
Teachers have been dealing with plagiarism for an awfully long time, and it could be that this is simply the latest manifestation of that particular scourge. When marking essays, I like to think that I can recognize a piece of writing that may be a bit too polished for a particular student based on work I have previously seen.
I wonder to what extent I will still be able to make that distinction when students have been submitting ChatGPT essays for years.
Of more immediate concern is the implications for the post-secondary level. Although I may get to know my students in my high school, my university students are, for all intents and purposes, complete strangers. My capacity to ascertain their individual voice from that of the AI in that context is limited to say the least.
Much like there were early champions of using the power of cell phones for good as opposed to evil, there are some who are hoping to leverage ChatGPT to enhance the classroom experience. In a recent op-ed, English teacher Cherie Shields argued that instead of banning AI tools, “…we should embrace how this program can help struggling students learn”. In her view, the real potential here is for the students to take the computer generated text and rework it by incorporating their own life experiences and nuance.
Shields also points out that the bot can help with the writing process by providing templates and exemplars. It can analyze student writing and provide ways for them to improve by making suggestions about grammar, spelling and structure. Finally, the bot can suggest revisions including alternative word choice and how to incorporate “advanced vocabulary”.
Essentially, the job Ms. Shields has been doing, in person, for 25 years.
Regardless of the potential impact on her future employability, I find myself coming down on her side on this one. Much like the aforementioned cell phones, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. As is always the case with the latest gadget, education will have to adapt.
However, I do find the whole thing a bit unsettling. Regardless of my passion for the craft I love, AI has the potential to perform tasks that were previously thought to be the exclusive domain of human teachers. Concerns about job displacement, the erosion of privacy, and the potential for AI to be used for malicious purposes abound. As well, AI systems are constantly evolving, making it difficult to predict how they might be used in the future. Although I like to consider myself pro-classroom technology, I can’t help but feel a bit of uncertainty and unease surrounding the development and use of AI in schools.
As a final note, I will confess that the bot wrote several sentences in that last paragraph for me.
I will leave you, my dear reader, to ascertain which are which.