February 20, 2023
At this point, you are doubtless aware of the capabilities of the ChatGPT Artificial Intelligence chatbot. This is not another case of technophobia and much ado about nothing. On the contrary, ChatGPT and similar AI tools are revolutionary and stand to challenge the way we write and search for information.
Want to save time in writing on any given topic? Give it a prompt or a question. The result is unique and will not be duplicated. Can’t generate the right word, le mot juste? Input the sentence and voilà, your writing partner provides it. Want another set of eyes on a draft? Copy and paste it and AI will revise it with compelling prose, accurate spelling, and [generally] correct grammar. You can ask it any question as you would Google, in natural language, and the results are likely to be more reliable since it’s not doing double duty as the world’s most valuable advertising agency. My organization is already using ChatGPT for all of these functions.
…And so are students. With just a prompt, word limit, and a few details, ChatGPT generates astonishing essays for students that are unique, creative, specific, well-structured, and grammatically acceptable, if not perfect (like students’ own work), even witty!
If you haven’t tried it out, here’s an example of a typical short answer prompt and the AI response:
My input to ChatGPT:
Using two quotations from Romeo and Juliet, briefly describe the character of Nurse (approximately 100 words)
- “There’s no trust, No faith, no honesty in men; all perjured, All forsworn, all naught, all dissemblers.” (Act II, Scene 4) ←This is an error; it’s Act III, Scene 2
This quotation reveals the Nurse’s cynicism and distrust towards men in general. This may be due to negative personal experiences or a generally jaded view of relationships.
- “I’ll lay fourteen of my teeth— And yet, to my teen be it spoken, I have but four— She is not fourteen. (Act II, Scene 4) ←Another error; it’s Act I, Scene 3
This quotation reveals the Nurse’s fondness for Juliet and her willingness to go to great lengths to protect and defend her. It also suggests a sense of humor and playfulness in the Nurse’s character.
An anxious teenager short on time and unconcerned about negative repercussions is quite likely to resort to this technology instead of doing his or her own thinking and searching of the text; saving time is the most frequent rationale for “unauthorized assistance.” Motivation, opportunity, and justification are all present as the necessary ingredients in the recipe for ethical lapses, in addition to the lack of consequences, as things stand.
Since the AI product is unique, it will evade any plagiarism checker. AI content detectors yield mixed results. No AI assistance was detected for one entirely AI-generated supplemental essay used for a most highly selective university application when the bot was provided with additional specific terms. The above example yielded this result:
For another entirely AI-generated essay responding to a prompt with no additional terms, the https://crossplag.com/ai-content-detector/ was able to detect 100% AI generation. When I input drafts of students’ essays for revision, no AI assistance was detected.
ChatGPT is free, anonymous, immediately accessible, and yields a good quality result. We need to determine how to use the technology to maximize students’ learning and preparation for the future in which employers will value their ability to work competently with AI. Librarians and other educators know the challenge of affirming the value of academic honesty, and what constitutes plagiarism when mashups and copy-and-paste jobs are ubiquitous and students are thrilled when their uncredited post or photo is shared or goes viral. Librarians can also attest to how much technology has changed our field and jobs. There are one-third as many librarians today as there were in 1990 since searchers can readily access information directly without our mediation. Translator Christopher Reid reports in The Wall Street Journal using DeepL to form the draft translation, which he then edits, “fixing errors and making the text sound natural,” which in turn helps the AI improve. Eventually, it’s clear, “The technology is poised to take over the translation process entirely.” And humans will find some other meaningful work.
School policy on the use of the AI chatbot for written work must be formulated thoughtfully and quickly, congruent with the school’s philosophy, and flexibly subject to change informed by action research. The largest school district in the country, the New York City Department of Education, has already reflexively banned it on school computers and networks. Students will handily circumvent this off school grounds. A school’s response to ChatGPT is likely to be consistent with its policies regarding the use of other devices like the Apple Watch, SMARTphones, websites that show all the steps to solving math problems, Grammarly, Quillbot, or Google Translate. These are all means to enhance or impede students’ learning, depending as much on the student’s motivation and the student’s family ethos as on the school administration’s reckoning and educators’ creativity.
The SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition of the task) model may be a helpful framework for consideration. Students may be required to handwrite their work on actual paper in class to entirely avoid AI altogether where AI is regarded as “unauthorized assistance” or plagiarism in violation of an honor code. They may be permitted to use AI as a tool to revise their own work (Augmentation) or co-write (Modification), or evaluate an AI-generated product (Redefinition).
In the traditional prompt about Romeo and Juliet above, students may be asked to add a step and check the quotations (and learn they are incorrect), expound on and extend what the bot wrote, write about whether they agree or disagree, compare their responses with other students, or, preferably, engage in far more imaginative assignments and projects altogether. The possibilities are limitless when we commit to the purpose of education as the free exchange of ideas to increase knowledge and understanding, the use of evidence for reasoned debate, respect for viewpoint diversity, the development of skills to communicate clearly, and the preparation of citizens for participation in a functional society (with ubiquitous AI).
ChatGPT may permit students to engage in work previous generations had never imagined, provide helpful instruction and models, and serve as an astute writing partner…or it may prevent them from learning to write at all.
Why should educators bother with teaching writing, especially since it’s hard and ChatGPT is a forerunner of whatever may come next? Natalie Wexler posited in Forbes recently, that writing is not merely an important skill to develop; “The process of writing itself can and should deepen that knowledge and possibly spark new insights” and “boosts their retention of the material.” Inarguably, if students rely too heavily on artificial intelligence, they may cultivate less of their own. Writing helps us to see what we think, consider our perspectives more cogently, and articulate them clearly to others.
In some ways, ChatGPT is an evolution of a persistent theme. Friends and family have always helped with homework, essays, and projects. Paid essay services have been booming for some time. The current prevailing rate for online essay writing services (including grade-level appropriate essays for courses with a money-back guarantee for an A or B grade, college essays, capstone projects, master’s theses, etc.) is $9/page with 24-hour turnaround, $7 for a two-week turnaround. Parents of high school and undergraduate students who admit to paying for these services for their students’ coursework tell me this is just “outsourcing” and a “wise use of their resources” in a misguided effort to preserve their student’s mental health, which takes precedence over any lesson they may learn.
Contemporary societal factors make the potential of ChatGPT and other emergent technologies particularly intriguing to contemplate. The postmodern ideology inextricably linked to Diversity, Inclusion, Race, and Equity that has swept educational institutions and societal mores professes that objective truth and morals do not exist and are socially constructed. And along with empiricism, logic, reason, and grammar serve as tools of the oppressive power structure. Will a chatbot serve as a force for equity for those who struggle with writing in “standard” [an oppressive term] English?
The perception of the high stakes in college admissions further leads to scorning traditional moral standards. The Educational Testing Service’s statistics indicate that “While about 20 percent of college students admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940s, today between 75 and 98 percent of college students surveyed each year report having cheated in high school.” And according to a survey for Intelligent.com, “One in four parents admit to cheating to get their child into college.” As an aside, I had naïvely anticipated that the Varsity Blues scandal would highlight the disastrous consequence of ethical lapses; in fact, it has had the opposite effect due to the perception that “everyone games the system.” That’s a problem AI can’t solve; it will require human ingenuity and determination (at least for now).
My exhortation is, “Onward with wonder, awe, intrepid curiosity, and the spirit of adventure!” And “Let’s be mindful about how to proceed and why.” The research is clear that teachers tend to teach the way they were taught and preserve tradition; Socrates’ stick and sand were effective teaching and learning tools, after all. Technophobes will lash themselves to the mast to avoid being seduced by the siren songs of innovation, while neophiles will jump fearlessly into the swirling waters between Scylla and Charybdis. Rapid technological advancements will demand that both types of educators (and everyone in between) maintain awareness of innovations as they arise. We must engage in action research, not lazily rely on opinion or consensus, to determine thoughtfully the best way to proceed, aligned with the school’s mission, pedagogical philosophy, and duty to develop our students’ skills, potential, lifelong love of learning, and preparation for the future. Our instructional methods must evolve and we must assume the responsibility of preparing students to work effectively with the tools they are likely to use for the rest of their lives.
Author of Engage!: Setting the Course for Independent Secondary Schools In the 21st Century (2015).
On action research: “The Importance of Evaluating Research,” Independent School, 2018.
Carolyn was the Founding Chief Academic Officer of Oxbridge Academy of the Palm Beaches and is currently Principal Consultant with East West College Counseling.