Technology has revolutionized education time and time again over the past few decades. The rise of the internet put the world's information at the fingertips of students, affordable laptops brought advanced personal tools into the classroom, and now AI tools like ChatGPT are quickly proving to be a disruptive force. Educators around the world are simultaneously grappling with the potential of AI in the classroom — both as a tool to enhance the learning process, and as a way for students to cheat.
AI tools like ChatGPT have already cropped up in business applications, but the wide accessibility of ChatGPT is proving to be something of a pickle. While the name might conjure a "chat bot" you can have a conversation with (and to be clear, that is absolutely a thing you can do), it can also handle complex commands with aplomb — and that's something some adventurous students are taking advantage of. For example, I asked ChatGPT to describe itself in the style of famed nature documentarian David Attenborough and it gave me this:
Ah, ChatGPT, what a remarkable creation! This language model is truly a marvel of the digital age. Trained by OpenAI, it has the ability to understand and generate text in a manner that would leave even the most eloquent human speechwriter in awe.
Imagine, with a simple query, ChatGPT can delve into its vast database of knowledge and respond with insightful and informative answers. Its responses are crafted with such precision and accuracy, that it often feels as if one is speaking with a knowledgeable friend.
But ChatGPT's true beauty lies in its versatility. From answering trivia questions to providing creative writing prompts, this digital being can adapt to any task with grace and ease. It's as if it has a boundless curiosity and a thirst for knowledge that drive its never-ending quest to learn and grow.
So, let us marvel at the wonder that is ChatGPT and the limitless potential it represents for the future of human-computer interaction. It truly is a remarkable technological feat, and one that deserves our admiration and wonder.
How humble. But also, anybody knowing Attenborough's style can immediately recognize this and read it in his voice and cadence. It's impressive.
If it can do that, can it work in education? Turns out it can. Professor Christian Terwiesch at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of business tried out ChatGPT on the final exam of the Operations Management class, a core part of the school's MBA program. He found that it "did an amazing job" at providing both correct and comprehensive answers to the basic process analysis questions on the exam, but made "surprising mistakes in relatively simple calculations at the level of 6th grade Math" and struggled with more complex queries — though providing further hints to refine its answers often yielded a better result. Overall, he would've given ChatGPT's answers a B or B-minus on the exam.
With a little coaching, ChatGPT would've scored a B or B-minus on a Wharton MBA exam… if it hadn't made basic math errors.
Understandably, AI authoring tools are provoking alarm in education. While the rise of the internet has led to small tweaks in how education happens, with more tools to detect plagiarism by comparing a student's digitally submitted assignment against a database of known content, AI tools aren't nearly as susceptible to those checks. The goal of the education system is to ensure that students possess the knowledge they need to succeed in life and work; both in memorized facts and the ability to apply that knowledge to problems.
You don't even have to be that old to remember teachers telling students "you won't always have a calculator on you" to justify the required memorization of certain equations and basic math processes. And there's absolutely merit to being able to do math mentally or by hand, but at the same time we have computers and online tools and smartphones that can all do all of this for us and they're not going to get any of it wrong. Technology has quietly changed math, offloading that cognitive function to a tool that will always do it better. The question isn't "do you know the answer?", it's "do you know how to get the correct answer?" — application of knowledge versus the recitation of knowledge.
So teachers have to adapt their lesson plans to accommodate. Some schools have gone as far as just blocking access to ChatGPT on their network and devices, but that will only be a stopgap measure. Students always find a way around school network blocks. Some college professors are considering a return to the old Blue Book handwritten exams, though that definitely feels like a huge step back.
Facing a wave of criticism, Open AI (the company behind ChatGPT) built a tool to evaluate text for potential AI generation, though it's not foolproof. Unsurprisingly, it thought the David Attenborough generated text from above was written by a human. When I asked ChatGPT for a 500-word academic essay on the bioluminescent functions of fireflies, the 527-word essay was evaluated "to be unlikely AI-generated". Meanwhile, Princeton University senior Edward Tian put his studies in computer science and journalism to work in building GPTZero, which was more successful in catching the AI-generated content and flagged 44% of the content as AI-sourced.
A philosophy professor at Northern Michigan University recently encountered ChatGPT-derived papers in his own class, noting that a student's paper was quite good — too good, in fact. The student confessed to using ChatGPT to write the entire paper. The professor responded by requiring students "to write first drafts in the classroom, using browsers that monitor and restrict computer activity," and then explain their later revisions. His aim is for students to show their deeper understanding of the topic, not just recite surface-level facts. But as a former student myself that was prone to procrastinating until the last minute and then pounding out a real banger of an essay with all the time I'd spent
dicking around on mid-2000s Star Trek forums pondering the topic.
On the other hand, some educators are leaning into ChatGPT as another tool that students can use. They know that they can't stop it without taking drastic measures, so why not embrace it instead like modern math teachers do with calculators? That's what lead to a change in Wharton associate professor Ethan Mollick's curriculum: use of AI tools is actually required. Students are going to use these tools whether he wants them to or not, but he'd rather they know how to use AI effectively than try and cheat by sneaking it in as their own work.
Professors like him are looking at ChatGPT and other AI tools as something to be understood and encouraged, like the calculator is today. After all, knowing how to use it effectively is important. Knowing whether the text it produced makes sense shows one's deeper understanding of the topic. That firefly essay I asked for earlier? I haven't studied bioluminescence at all, so I have no clue if it's correct.
Using something like ChatGPT as a tool in education is like using Google Search. You have to understand how to use it effectively to get the information you're looking for. And you have to understand that this amazing machine operates with the utmost confidence, even when it's absolutely wrong. Using it well is a skill, not a crutch. And many students admit to using it in ways that won't be as obvious: it can generate prompts for essays, provide alternative points of view on a topic, and take on the drudgery work of building an outline that the student will still have to flesh out with their own words.
In many ways, AI today stands to be a great tool for offloading cognitive function. It can take on the dull and boring parts of academic work and give users the ability to dedicated their time and brainpower to other tasks. As the ubiquity of the calculator removed the need for memorizing multiplication tables and GPS navigation means we don't have to know how to read a paper map in order to navigate an unfamiliar area, AI tools stand poised to take over some of those basic mental tasks and allow us to focus on higher-level thinking.
This isn't the first time a revolution in technology stood poised to change how the world works. The domestication of animals and basic agricultural tools like the plow meant fewer people had to work in the fields and could go on to do other things. The introduction of robots into manufacturing improved efficiency and quality while also requiring fewer people. The rise of computers completely changed the role of office secretaries. Every time a new technology has come along and taken a task away from humans by doing it better, safer, and faster, humans have always found something new to do with that time and freed-up mental capacity.
AI is coming for education whether schools want it to or not. It can't really be stopped without taking education back to the stone age. Having taken college courses myself that relied on Blue Books for exams, I really hope that schools learn to embrace ChatGPT and similar tools that will follow instead of engaging in a losing battle to block them entirely. Just as student papers today are run through plagiarism detection tools, I have no doubt that AI-detection systems will become part of the grading tools suite used by teachers.
AI is a blunt tool. It's on us to build the framework around it to ensure it is used effectively to improve the quality of life for people of all walks of life.
Now how do you know I didn't call on ChatGPT to write this article? I expect that all the typos my feeble human brain failed to catch will give it away. So I'll just turn the conclusion of this article over to ChatGPT:
The integration of AI tools in education presents both opportunities and challenges. On one hand, AI has the potential to personalize learning and improve student outcomes by providing instant feedback and adapting to individual needs. On the other hand, there are risks associated with AI such as the potential for biased algorithms and loss of human interaction. It is important for educators and policymakers to carefully weigh the risks and benefits of AI in education and ensure that its integration is guided by ethical considerations and a commitment to promoting equity and inclusion. Ultimately, the goal should be to harness the power of AI to enhance the educational experience for all students and to prepare them for success in a rapidly changing world.
Couldn't have said it better myself.
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