ChatGPT in Classrooms: What to Know

Ask ChatGPT to write a five-paragraph essay on the symbolism of “The Great Gatsby” and it will produce a response within seconds. Plug in an algebra equation and it can solve it almost instantly and even explain its process.

That’s not all. The capabilities of the artificial intelligence chatbot tool, launched in November 2022 by San Francisco-based startup OpenAI, are vast. It can fix spelling and grammar errors, give feedback on writing, write poems and songs, create lesson plans for teachers and much more. It does it all in human-sounding text and with high efficiency.

Though ChatGPT is still in its infancy and limited in some ways, it has the attention of school administrators, teachers, parents and students, and its presence has garnered mixed responses, experts say. It’s brought ethical questions about how AI fits in education, and the potential for plagiarism and cheating is cause enough for some to shun the website altogether.

New York City Public Schools, the largest school district in the U.S., announced in early January 2023 that it was banning ChatGPT across all district devices and networks. Other big city districts like Seattle, Baltimore and Los Angeles have also blocked access to the app, and more may soon follow.

[READ:Cellphones in School: What to Know]

Some, however, say they’re excited about its potential to advance learning for some students and become a valuable tool in education. Those teachers are envisioning ways to adapt their teaching to incorporate it in their lessons, experts say.

“It’s been quite fascinating to see the education field react faster than I think I’ve ever seen them react to a new technology,” says Torrey Trust, associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.

As schools across the U.S. decide whether ChatGPT has a place in the classroom, here’s what parents and students should know.

What Is Different About ChatGPT?

As society has evolved technologically, so has education. Computers, cellphones, calculators and the internet have found a place in the classroom. Spellcheck and grammar-checking websites are also widely accepted tools, as are more advanced technologies like speech-to-text software and voice AI like Siri, Google Voice and Amazon Alexa.

So what makes ChatGPT different? Why is it generating such polarizing responses?

“From what I can tell, ChatGPT seems to be one of the most advanced natural language processing tools out there to date,” Trust says. “There’s something with this tool, with the simplicity of the user interface design, that anyone can log on and try it out. When you insert a prompt, what it comes back with is so close to what another human might say.”

ChatGPT is a “large language model,” which means it’s able to generate readable text on demand in a wide range of styles and for a variety of purposes. It can perform those tasks with noticeably more accuracy and coherence than previous models, experts say. Plus, ChatGPT is designed to be user-friendly, and it’s free.

Trust says ChatGPT has made AI visible in a way other technologies haven’t. Its capabilities have left some in awe while others, she says, feel “panicked” by its potential ramifications.

AI is present “through streaming recommendations, facial recognition to get into your phone or notifications and apps,” she says. “It’s around us, but it’s not something I think people think about on a daily basis. Something about this tool is like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s so closely mapping to what humans might respond with or say. Is this cause for panic or concern?'”

Concerns About ChatGPT

One of the main concerns that educators have is that students might exploit ChatGPT’s capabilities to cheat on assignments — using the app to produce research papers and essays instead of doing the work themselves.

Edward Tian, a student at Princeton University in New Jersey, recently developed an app called GPTZero that he said in a tweet “can quickly and efficiently detect whether an essay is ChatGPT or human written.”

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Trust says there was “a huge sigh of relief” by some in her education circles when this app, and other plagairism checkers, became available. Some teachers had ditched technology altogether and gone back to paper assignments and assessments, says Shana Ramin, a technology integration specialist with Oakland Schools in Michigan.

ChatGPT has its limitations as well, and educators fear that too much reliance on it could lead to more problems. For instance, Trust says she’s seen it solve math problems incorrectly as well as completely make up citations for a research paper, though visually it looked legitimate.

“I think with anything, it’s important to understand that it’s a new tool and you can’t just rely on it 100%,” Ramin says.

There are also concerns about privacy and data collection, as ChatGPT collects information like a user’s IP address, user interactions and the country where they’re located, Trust says.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, which was designed to protect the privacy of children under the age of 13, prohibits apps from collecting this kind of data on children. ChatGPT’s Terms of Use states that users should be 18 years or older, but it doesn’t verify the age of its users.

Trust says K-12 educators should not ask students to use the tool for educational purposes because of privacy concerns. “I don’t even know if I would get parent permission, because technically it’s not to be used by anyone under 18,” Trust says, adding: “Is that stopping anyone? Absolutely not.”

She says the best practice would be adults creating an account and using it alongside their students or children.

How Teachers and Students Are Using ChatGPT

Trust says her hope is for teachers to adapt their practices to ChatGPT rather than just focus on catching students cheating. For example, experts say they’ve heard of some teachers giving ChatGPT a prompt and analyzing its response with students as a practice in editing and critical thinking.

Ramin says it can be used to pare down difficult passages for lower reading levels, one of many ways the tool can help English language learners or students with learning disabilities. It can also provide sentence starters or help generate ideas for students who struggle to do so on their own.

“When we think about tools like this, often it’s just like, how can the standard student use it?” Trust says. “But we often forget about how beneficial tools like this can be for students with disabilities in helping their thinking, learning and executive functioning.”

Some teachers are also using it to make their jobs easier, says Matt Miller, an educational technology writer and speaker and author of “Ditch That Textbook.”

Some are using ChatGPT to help generate ideas for lesson plans and class activities, or plug in their students’ writing to get recommendations and edits, he says. Miller says teachers are “so absolutely strapped for time” that using ChatGPT for certain functions can help them do their jobs better and more efficiently.

[READ: Understanding Different Types of Learning Disabilities.]

“I’m still of the opinion that if we can take some of the monotony out of the hands of teachers, it frees them up to do what they were made to do as teachers,” he says. “Build relationships with students one on one, develop curriculum, come up with creative teaching ideas — all of that stuff that the grind doesn’t let them do and beats them down for.”

Ramin says teachers and students should see ChatGPT as a helpful tool, much like a calculator might be in math class, but it “cannot do a teacher’s job.” It’s there to help teachers reach their learning objectives. Whether it’s ChatGPT or another technology down the road, she says, AI isn’t going away and, if anything, is likely to be more of a part of classrooms.

“It’s definitely scary. I understand the desire to panic,” she says. Her department met and discussed whether it was something they needed to consider banning in the district, she says.

“But the more than I play around with it, the more I see the potential and I see the benefits. There’s definitely the potential for misuse, but I think that’s all the more reason why we need to be aware of it and understand it.”

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