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Is ChatGPT the future of cheating or the future of teaching?

Some experts argue that the chatbot can be a beneficial educational tool.

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ChatGPT, the cutting-edge chatbot from OpenAI that was released in November 2022, can solve math equations, write a history term paper, compose a sonnet and almost everything in between. So it’s not surprising that many educators support banning the chatbot in schools to prevent plagiarism, cheating and just plain inaccuracy.

In response to these concerns, some major districts have banned the chatbot in schools. In December, the Los Angeles Unified School District “preemptively” blocked access to ChatGPT while “a risk/benefit assessment is conducted,” a district spokesperson told the Washington Post. And in January, New York City Public Schools banned access to ChatGPT from devices and networks that the school owns, per the Washington Post. A spokesperson for the NYC Department of Education told Chalkbeat that the decision was made “due to concerns about negative impacts on student learning and concerns regarding the safety and accuracy of content.”

But not everyone is on board with a complete ban — some in the education world say instead of banning it, teach kids how to use it smartly and fairly, and it could be a beneficial educational tool.

One thing that experts do agree on: Don’t just ignore it.

“ChatGPT is just one more piece in the puzzle that’s accelerating change in terms of teaching and education,” said Trevor MacKenzie, an English teacher in Victoria, Canada.

The biggest issue with ChatGPT: cheating

ChatGPT is the leading edge of a new wave of chatbots based on so-called generative language models. They are trained on large sample sets of writing, and their writing is much more structurally complex than previous generations of bots.

The chatbot is so good at creating human-like responses that Alex Lawrence, professor at Weber State University, described it as “the greatest cheating tool ever invented,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

The concern from some teachers is that they may not be able to differentiate between a student’s work and the work of ChatGPT.

It would seem like the concern is warranted. As CNN reported, ChatGPT is powerful enough to have passed law exams in four courses at the University of Minnesota and a test at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. It’s worth noting, though, that it does sometimes stumble too. ChatGPT’s attempt at “basic equations of rocketry,” for example, was unsuccessful, NPR reported.

And according to survey data from Study.com of 1000 students aged 18 and up, more than 89 percent of students who responded said they had used ChatGPT to help with a homework assignment, 48 percent admitted they had used it for an at-home test, and 53 percent had used it to write an essay.

Teachers faced a similar issue when Wikipedia was introduced. The fear, then, like the fear now, is that students would plagiarize information from Wikipedia instead of sourcing the information themselves.

Unlike Wikipedia, there is no source attribution with ChatGPT, which presents another issue.

One of the most worrying things about ChatGPT, according to Nadav Ziv, research affiliate with the Stanford History Education Group, is that it produces information without citing sources. He described it as “free-standing information,” or information that isn’t attributable to a source.

As a test, Ziv asked ChatGPT to write an essay on the causes of the American Revolution, which it did, but there were no sources attached to the information. History can be subjective with scholarly disagreement, so the worry, he said, is that without attribution, students might treat the information as fact without taking into consideration how the source can impact credibility.

An inevitable part of the future

Ziv believes that banning ChatGPT, like banning Google or any resource online, is almost impossible to do. It’s not only that students will continue to use these resources with or without a ban, but it’s actually important that students know how to safely engage with technology like ChatGPT. “I think it’s more about preparing students to safely and effectively engage with ChatGPT,” he said, “understand its limitations, understand its opportunities.”

Yotam Ophir, professor of communication at the University at Buffalo, pointed out a recurring pattern with the introduction of new technology: Every time a new technology is introduced, we find ourselves struggling with how it forces people to rethink the things they do. The best comparison, he said, is calculators, which, like ChatGPT, many found threatening to education. The worry, he explained, was about the possibility of calculators and statistical software eventually replacing mathematicians.

The introduction of these new technologies, he said, can be disruptive in nature and spark a rethinking of values, which is sometimes necessary.

“ChatGPT will be a part of their [students’] lives,” he said. “There is no going back.”

So instead of prohibiting students from using it, Ophir said, educators should consider the purpose of education in the first place. “If the purpose is to prepare children for the world of tomorrow, and I think it should be,” he said, “then ChatGPT is going to be a part of their lives.”

A beneficial educational tool

There are a few different ways to successfully incorporate ChatGPT into new curriculums, say some experts.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explained that when students learn to write, the most important skills they are really developing are being able to generate a strong thesis from the information they have gathered and then using paragraphs to support that thesis.

This skill of figuring out the best evidence to use, she argued, would still be in the purview of humans to determine. This cannot be replaced by technology. In the future, Hirsh-Pasek believes, we will value curiosity, critical thinking and creativity over rote memorization, and ChatGPT will help foster these skills.

“We actually help students more by showing them how to ask the right questions, which I think is an important skill,” she said, adding that she encourages students to use their “mental muscles” to make what they are working on better than what they got from ChatGPT.

Another benefit of ChatGPT? Helping teachers rethink how they teach.

According to MacKenzie, ChatGPT forces teachers to shift their educational practices and accelerate change, enabling teachers to reflect not just on what they teach but how they teach.

“If teachers teach from a stance that simply allows learning to be a series of transactions (assign, turn in, repeat),” he explained, “then ChatGPT forces teachers to shift to a more process-focused teaching stance where we more beyond the transactional and into a space of authentically developing skills.”

And then there is also a way for ChatGPT to be used to teach students about intellectual property and plagiarism, according to Olga Polites, leader of the New Jersey chapter of Media Literacy Now and a teacher with 40 years of experience.

The fact that ChatGPT doesn’t cite sources for the information it produces can be used to teach students about their ethical responsibility to be the originator of the content that they are creating. “This is what ChatGPT does,” she said, “it calls into question whether or not you are the originator.”

How teachers avoid the ChatGPT pitfalls

Yes, there are benefits to incorporating ChatGPT into the classroom, but how do teachers do it successfully and avoid the potential for cheating and misinformation?

MacKenzie believes it all starts with a strong formative assessment practice, which, as he explains, is providing coaching and feedback during the process of a student developing a task or an assignment.

So instead of merely looking at the final product without providing feedback in the process, a formative assessment means a teacher is involved in the entirety of the process of the assignment being completed. It would be hard to cheat using ChatGPT because, in theory, with this sort of assessment, nothing a student turns in would be a surprise to the teacher — it would be easy to distinguish between the student’s work and the work of ChatGPT.

Similarly, Hirsh-Pasek thinks the answer is in readjusting the way teachers teach.

“Part of this is going to be a pedagogical shift and a mind shift,” she said. The outcomes of learning, she explained, need to be learning how to be more collaborative, learning how to build communities, creative thinking and creative innovation, and the confidence to take risks even if they lead to failure. But all these skills, she said, are antithetical to the current school system. But ChatGPT, like covid, can be the engine for change, she argues.

“Covid and ChatGPT are engines that are moving us toward change,” she said, “because they’re so dramatic that they pointed out how frail we are.”

Thanks to Brett Zach for copy editing this article.

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