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Oakland Student's Videos Help Teachers Understand ChatGPT

As teachers and school districts race to catch up with the implications of an essay-writing chatbot, a 17-year-old private high school student in Oakland, Calif., is trying to communicate its potential value.

Kaden Hyatt
Kaden Hyatt, 17, of Berkeley, is photographed at his home in Berkeley, Calif., on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. Hyatt creates YouTube videos to help teachers understand how to use ChatGPT, a new AI platform with the potential to write lesson plans, do essays and complete math homework.
Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group/TNS
(TNS) — A few weeks before winter break, 17-year-old Kaden Hyatt sent a mass email to his Oakland high school, College Preparatory. He had just stumbled across a new artificial intelligence platform called ChatGPT. Hidden behind its innocuous name is a search engine on AI-laced steroids that can churn out original essays, solve complex math problems and even compose short fiction — on virtually any topic — in seconds.

Write a 1,000-word paper on the rise and fall of Genghis Khan? Finished in one minute, 45 seconds. Find the derivative of a quadratic polynomial? Less than 30 seconds, with step-by-step explanations marking the process.

The platform has left students raving and teachers — at least the ones who have heard about the chatbot — scrambling, with many debating whether ChatGPT could upend education as we know it.

“It is one of the most powerful tools released in recent years and it is completely free right now!!” wrote Hyatt, who had long been fascinated by emerging technologies.

Hyatt’s email hit dozens of students, teachers and school staff, but not all of them shared his enthusiasm. According to experts, ChatGPT is perhaps the most convincingly human form of free artificial intelligence to date, one with the potential to disrupt countless industries — and utterly rock the classroom.

“We’re looking at a shock to the education system, technologically,” said Victor Lee, who leads the Data Interactions & STEM Teaching and Learning Lab at Stanford University. “The same way Google outperformed search engines, or Netflix changed our expectations for streaming content … Whether ChatGPT is the exact model we’ll continue to use remains to be determined. But either way, we’re in a new era.”

GPT stands for generative pre-trained transformer, a type of artificial intelligence that can write like a human after crawling through — and synthesizing — massive amounts of text. San Francisco-based research company OpenAI launched ChatGPT just two months ago. Ever since, scholars and students alike are abuzz on social media as it produces cover letters, poems, and even scientific studies with the click of a button. In seconds, anyone on the Internet can create a free account and start using the tool, though access has been limited due to surging traffic.

Just a month after ChatGPT was released, school districts in New York City and Seattle blocked it from their school devices and networks. So far, it appears no Bay Area school district has done the same. But across the region, many are clambering in the chatbot’s wake.

Within Hyatt’s email to the school, he included self-made YouTube videos to help teachers understand the program. In the first episode, he went over how to use ChatGPT and what its limitations are — and in a later one, he showed how the platform can help students understand math problems.

“It’s frankly amazing that this tool is now available to anyone,” said Hyatt in one video.

In December, College Prep, a $50,000-a-year private school, invited Hyatt to speak with the school’s curriculum committee, where teachers, students and administrators tried to explore what education meant in a world with such an intelligent tool.

“There was a wide array of different reactions,” Hyatt said. “Some of wonder and amazement, others of outright fear, and a sprinkle of existential dread.”

In an experiment to test ChatGPT’s abilities, Hyatt said, one of his friends submitted two essays to their teacher at College Prep. One was written by ChatGPT, while the other was written by the student himself. The teacher tried to determine which piece belonged to the student, assuming it would be a relatively simple choice.

According to Hyatt, however, the teacher chose wrong.

“If you ask ChatGPT to do a literary analysis of Beloved, or House on Mango Street, or the Great Gatsby, it will do a pretty good job,” said Sarah Levine, assistant professor of Education at Stanford University. “It will give you a B+ essay, one that many teachers would be delighted if their own students could write.”

The first reactions from teachers across the country echoed the apprehension felt at the College Prep meeting. “With Open AI & #chatGPT I’d be shocked if ½ as many schools use essays 2 yrs. from now,” tweeted Rick Clark, the director of admissions at Georgia Tech. Another user described that while using the chatbot, he was “witnessing the death of the college essay in realtime.”

But as experimentation with the tool continues, some teachers are seeing the benefits of an AI-infused education. Kim Lepre, a middle school English teacher based in Chula Vista, thinks ChatGPT could be used to help students learn in new, innovative ways.

“It’s like when people switched over from the abacus to the calculator, and they thought it was going to make people not good at math anymore,” said Lepre. “But they realized that the calculator was just a great tool. I think that ChatGPT can be used as a great tool too — you just have to reframe how you see it.”

Some teachers have started using ChatGPT to reduce their own workloads, trimming the time they spend on tasks like writing lesson plans and sending emails, along with other work that takes up about half of teachers’ time, according to a survey conducted by EdWeek Research Center.

Jake Carr, an English teacher in Chico, has been leaning on ChatGPT every day since mid-December to create flawed paragraphs of text for students to refine, and instructing the chatbot to write up examples to use in the classroom.

“I’ve come to view ChatGPT and other machine learning as the intern I’ve always wanted,” Carr said. “I shift the heavy lifting to that intern, and finesse what it produces afterward.”

Many teachers aren’t concerned that the bot will lead to an explosion in cheating. Ever since school has existed, Lepre said, some kids have tried to bend the rules. But it’s unlikely that those who do not cheat will begin doing so just because a new chatbot makes it easier.

Cheating — even with artificial intelligence — is nothing new, said Danielle Alm, who teaches high school algebra and precalculus in Danville. And especially after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s learned to spot the signs. AI-produced math homework, for example, often includes zeros where a human student would not.

“There’s nothing out there that’s going to replicate a human brain,” Alm said. “You still have to take your tests in front of me, and it can’t help you then.”

On top of that, ChatGPT is far from infallible. According to an OpenAI spokesperson, because of the way it was built, ChatGPT has limited knowledge after 2021. (That being said, it also has the ability to both admit its own mistakes and fabricate what it doesn’t know — doing both in ways that are eerily human.)

Still, many experts feel ChatGPT could inevitably shatter education’s status quo. Today, the tool remains free, but it remains to be seen whether it will stay that way. Later this year, OpenAI is expected to release the newest version of the tool, ChatGPT-4, that some experts claim will be 500 times more powerful than its predecessor.

But even with its current model, Levine said the tool will force teachers to rethink what — and why — they teach what they teach, and whether writing essays is really the best way to assess students’ learning. The take-home essay may soon be dead, experts say. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the classroom is.

Just ask the culprit itself.

“Overall, using Chat GPT or other language models in schools can be a valuable tool to enhance education, but it’s important to approach this technology with caution and ensure that it’s being used in a way that is beneficial for student learning,” said ChatGPT in a conversation with the Bay Area News Group.

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