Joining us in class today, is ChatGPT

The buzz around back-to-school season is a bit different this fall. For the first time, students and educators will enter an academic school year following the introduction of generative artificial intelligence, or AI.   

ChatGPT, an AI platform developed by OpenAI, burst onto the scene in November of last year. In simplest terms, the chatbot responds to questions or prompts from a user by creating content informed by vast amounts of data found across the internet. This technology immediately garnered interest from media, businesses, and particularly in education as students and teachers experimented with it for assignments and coursework. Other tech companies, such as Microsoft, have launched similar products.  

Opinions in education spaces following its launch last year range from excitement about a new technology with the potential to transform learning, to alarm bells about cheating, loss of critical thinking, and susceptibility to misinformation pulled from inaccurate sources. 

On The New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast, a professor recounted reading student assignments that were written as if they were career experts on 17th century England, with “a combination of polish together with impersonal…kind of like if Wikipedia had a voice.” He describes a “sinking feeling” experienced when reading AI-produced work across introductory and advanced course levels, missing a student’s personality and insight that comes from bringing an outside perspective to the material. 

Such concerns paired with limited understanding of ChatGPT’s implications for learning – in part due to its sudden arrival midway through the school year – prompted some colleges and school districts to ban use of the platform outright. But school districts soon found that policies disallowing ChatGPT on school-issued laptops raised equity issues because children with access to other devices at home would just use it for their assignments anyway.  

However, students and educators alike have offered thoughtful points about how they leverage AI as a tool to supplement their learning. A ninth grader at Brookline High School recently likened ChatGPT to a personalized math tutor, generating practice questions to prepare for geometry. A junior at King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham wrote a compelling op-ed in The Boston Globe arguing that AI can support critical thinking and prepare students for a professional world that will normalize these technologies well into the future.

Heading into a new school year, many educators have made the most of time to prepare for using ChatGPT in their curriculum. The New York Times recently sat in on a professional development workshop hosted by the Walla Walla school district in Washington state to report on its plans for leveraging the technology. A middle school teacher is quoted in the story saying that she wants her students to learn how to use it, because they will grow up “in a world where this is the norm.”   

Educators in the Times article and other coverage describe using ChatGPT to design math problems, serve as lesson-planning aids, create questions for problem solving exercises, and translate materials for dual language classes. Importantly, teachers planning to integrate the platform into their curriculum will also use it to teach students how to identify misinformation or bias in the content it creates. Understanding how to use this tool effectively and accurately represents another step in digital literacy for students, they say.  

Whether schools embrace ChatGPT or not, students will still need to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills to prepare them for careers and life after college. Analyzing the veracity of information they are consuming and sharing will be especially crucial. In communications for example, knowing how to fact check, and having the skills to write and edit one’s own original content will continue to be a requirement for success.

There is much to learn about generative AI, including how to best use it in and out of our classrooms. The next several months will be an important indicator of where our education system is headed with this technology at our fingertips.  

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