Area schools begin to grapple with fast-growing AI app ChatGPT


For the Gazette

Published: 03-30-2023 3:02 PM

As the new artificial intelligence model ChatGPT becomes increasingly ubiquitous, educators, students and parents are navigating a new world in which AI can be used to write essays, create lesson plans, brainstorm ideas, generate poetry and even come up with jokes.

ChatGPT (Generative Pretrained Transformer) is a artificial intelligence language-processing tool that generates human-like responses based on the prompts it is given. Since it was launched for public use in December, ChatGPT has drawn the attention of over 100 million monthly active users, making it the fastest-growing consumer application in history, according to a recent study released by USB, a global firm providing financial services in over 50 countries.

In school environments, students have used the tool to write papers and teachers have used it to create lesson plans. Early discussions around the new technology have raised concerns about potential plagiarism, cheating, bias and misinformation in educational settings.

In January, New York City school officials started blocking the writing tool. The decision by the largest U.S. school district to restrict the ChatGPT website on school devices and networks could have ripple effects on other schools, and teachers scrambling to figure out how to prevent cheating. The creators of ChatGPT say they’re also looking for ways to detect misuse, according to the Associated Press.

Many educators in Hampshire County are hesitant to speak about the emerging technology. Across the board, most teachers contacted for an interview did not respond. Others replied with an email stating that ChatGPT is not yet having a substantial impact on their classrooms.

Even so, administrators are considering the potential ramifications of the chatbot.

“This technology, while interesting, is one that we believe if misused is antithetical to our school values,” said April Camuso, principal at Hopkins Academy in Hadley. “For students learning to think critically, independently and to wrestle with ideas, we believe it can hinder those goals.”

Students ahead of the game?

Nonetheless, Levi Armstrong, a senior at Northampton High School, said that he knows “quite a few people” already using ChatGPT to write essays and aid in school assignments.

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“I think students are ahead of the game when it comes to finding ways to meander out of assignments,” he said, pointing to existing technologies like online calculators that students have used for years.

“I would be curious to know if some of my teachers even know what [ChatGPT] is,” he said. “I’m sure administration is going to catch on sooner than later.”

Armstrong first heard about ChatGPT in December. When he came down with COVID-19, Armstrong had some extra time on his hands to play around with the technology. At the time, he was interested in applying for an internship at WRSI The River, so he prompted ChatGPT to write a cover letter.

A couple of weeks later, he showed the letter to Northampton High’s internship coordinator, who “said it was one of the best first attempts she’s read,” Armstrong said.

“Right now, since it’s so new everyone’s like, ‘Wait this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,’” Armstrong said. “It’s is so high-technology and you can have full conversations with it.”

Jeromie Whalen, one of Armstrong’s teachers at NHS, has noticed a contrast between students’ familiarity with ChatGPT and his colleagues’ knowledge and understanding of the chatbot.

“It’s such a recent tool that it’s not entirely on teachers’ radars in the sense that they’re not having the conversations with students,” Whalen said. But when Whalen asked his students whether they had used ChatGPT, there were “lots of hands raised.”

Administrators consider ramifications

School administrators in Northampton, Hadley and Amherst said ChatGPT is not yet having an extensive impact on their respective districts.

Northampton High School Principal Bill Wehrli said ChatGPT “has not been a topic of conversation that I have been part of yet. I’m sure it will be, and I imagine we will be spending time on it in the coming months.”

At Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools, Director of Information Systems Jerry Champagne said in a statement, “ChatGPT isn’t having a huge impact in our districts yet. We aren’t currently allowing access within the schools until I can get clarification on their privacy policy … educate teachers on strategies for detecting AI-generated content, and help them with creating alternative assessment methods.”

Hopkins Academy, where Camuso said a handful of students have used the software, sent an email to parents and guardians in February with information about ChatGPT, its uses, and how it may violate the school’s handbook policies around academic honesty. She said parents have yet to chime in on the subject.

At Northampton High, Wehrli noted that the school’s goal is to “engage students in meaningful work that interests them and builds skills they value.” Part of that, he said, includes understanding the promise and limitations of technologies like ChatGPT.

“There are also applications of the technology that will be of enormous benefit, so the challenge is building agreements on when and how to use the technology responsibly,” Wehrli said.

ChatGPT’s potential

Torrey Trust, an associate professor of learning and technology in the College of Education at UMass Amherst, said ChatGPT has potential as a learning, writing and research assistant.

“I think students can definitely turn to this tool to really help with summarizing information, understanding really complex topics, or furthering their thinking about a topic in any field,” she said.

In her own classroom, Trust modified her academic integrity policy to accommodate the use of ChatGPT for brainstorming, writing assistance and communication; however, copying word-for-word from the chatbot is considered plagiarism, according to Trust’s policy.

Trust sees the benefit in artificial intelligence models like ChatGPT but believes that crucial problems arise when students take the AI’s output at face value.

In particular, Trust points to certain limitations of the AI, including its tendency to spew misinformation, inaccurately answer math and science questions, and insert harmful bias into its responses.

“It’s been hailed as one of the most powerful misinformation tools to date,” she noted.

As a researcher of technology and education, Trust believes educators should change their approach to teaching in response to ChatGPT.

“If you create assignments that students are excited about, motivated to do, or interested in that are relevant to their lives and authentic, I think they’re less likely to use tools to do the work for them,” she said. “I’m trying to convince more educators to take that approach, rather than this kind of surveillance and monitoring.”

Whalen, the high school teacher from Northampton, works with Trust as he pursues a master’s degree in learning media and technology and a doctorate in mathematics, science, and learning technologies at UMass.

Whalen has taken a similar approach to Trust in his own classroom, reconfiguring certain assignments and creating new ones in response to the new chatbot.

In his journalism class, Whalen has students use ChatGPT and a rephrasing tool called QuillBot to synthesize information for monologues.

“I’m utilizing it in the sense of acknowledging that it’s there and talking about the ethical way to use it and make your life more efficient,” Whalen said.

In another assignment where students typically write a haiku and then take photographs inspired by the poem, Whalen is now encouraging students to use ChatGPT as a creative jump-start to generate haikus, revise them, and then take photographs.

Even though Whalen is finding ways to incorporate the new technology into his curriculum, he still has concerns about its potential impact on students’ learning.

“If it’s used primarily for what we call substitution, rather than enhancement or augmentation of things, then we have a problem,”  Whalen said.

He pointed out that when students use ChatGPT as a search engine, it is impossible know if the information is coming from a reputable source, if there are perspectives missing, and if the datasets contained discriminatory language. Whalen also expressed concern that students will view ChatGPT’s voice as the correct voice, and acknowledged the potential detriment to high school students as they develop their own voices and writing styles.

“This is not something that’s going away,” Whalen said. “It’s quite the opposite. We’re going to see this technology improve over the next several years to the point where it’s going to get better and better.”

This story includes reporting by the Associated Press.]]>