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Opinion: Schools Must Assess ChatGPT Before Using It

The Editorial Board of the Chicago Tribune argues that like many new technologies, ChatGPT will have a place in classrooms, but educators must first understand how best to use it without undermining student learning.

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(TNS) — Whether we like it or not, artificial intelligence is wending its way into virtually every corner of our lives. Our Google searches, email drafts and Facebook newsfeeds rely on AI. While AI-assisted Roombas clean our carpets, Amazon’s Alexa tells us it’s going to snow, or reminds us that, yes, Cate Blanchett has indeed already won two acting Oscars — for Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” and Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.”

Now AI, in the form of a controversial app called ChatGPT, has made its debut in classrooms, and school districts across the country are scrambling to bone up on the technology and decide whether it should be seen as friend or foe.

ChatGPT is the brainchild of OpenAI, a startup with ties to Microsoft. It’s free, and it works much the way a search engine does, responding to a question or request. The big difference: ChatGPT generates text that convincingly approximates the syntax and flow of the human written word. Its versatility encompasses everything from poetry and essays to math problems and computer coding.

When we tried it, the website was so besieged by users that it became overwhelmed, and offered up only a quaint attempt at a sonnet that pleaded for patience. A brief excerpt:

“But alas, the server cannot cope,
And the error message rings loud and clear,
“Please check back soon,” it gently hopes,
As it begs for a moment’s reprieve, to reappear.”

Hardly Shakespeare, but perhaps we’re setting the bar too high.

In any case, the app likely will be a boon for businesses, law firms, insurance companies and any other enterprise that relies heavily on boilerplate verbiage. In schools and colleges, however, the hand-wringing has begun.

The nation’s largest public school district, New York City Public Schools, has already banned students and teachers from using ChatGPT, citing “negative impacts on student learning, and concerns regarding the safety and accuracy of content.” Los Angeles Unified School District followed suit, explaining the measure as a way to “protect academic honesty while a risk/benefit assessment is conducted.”

Other districts are still weighing their options, including Chicago Public Schools. Chalkbeat reported that CPS is taking a hard look at the use of ChatGPT in classrooms, but has yet to impose any sort of ban. A CPS spokesperson, Chalkbeat reported, stated that the district is “committed to providing students with a rigorous and engaging educational experience that incorporates technological advances. This includes tools that help students explore budding career pathways.”

CPS is right to review the merits of student and teacher use of ChatGPT, but it’s wrong in not taking the same route as New York and Los Angeles.

Cheating is as synonymous with classrooms as chalk and erasers. Yesteryear techniques ranged from crib sheets cupped in a student’s palms to a simple peek over the shoulder of a classmate. Today’s digital age takes the potential for cheating to new levels, and ChatGPT makes it far too easy for struggling students to lean on AI-generated writing in place of what comes out of their own heads. What’s especially worrisome is that ChatGPT’s syntax appears to be polished and natural enough to elude not just anti-plagiarism software but even the most seasoned educator’s scrutiny.

In a December 2022 article in the Atlantic, high school teacher Daniel Herman conveyed his trepidation about the app after testing it with a series of prompts ranging from a cover letter for a job at Starbucks to a research paper on the common threads that bind two disparate literary works, such as Homer’s “The Odyssey” and Dante’s “Inferno.” Lightning fast, ChatGPT fulfilled every task without a hitch. “What GPT can produce right now is better than the large majority of writing seen by your average teacher or professor,” Herman wrote.

We’re not Luddites, and we believe that technology must always be given space to advance the educational experience at every level, from preschool to university. ChatGPT may well have undeniable utility in a variety of classroom circumstances. First, however, school districts must determine how to best use ChatGPT without allowing its exploitation of student learning. Only then should it make its way into classrooms.

Technological leaps and anxiety over how those advances will integrate into our lives go hand in hand. An 1877 New York Times editorial railed at the advent of the telephone, saying, “If any telephonic miscreant connects a telephone with one of the countless telegraphic wires that pass over the roofs of this city there will be an immediate end of all privacy.” Guglielmo Marconi had doubts about his own invention — the radio: “Have I done the world good, or have I added a menace?”

ChatGPT, and the myriad other manifestations of AI, should be welcomed for what they are — game-changers that help us live better lives. But in classrooms, care must always be taken to ensure that a new means of educating helps rather than harms. It’s incumbent on CPS and school districts across America to assess ChatGPT diligently, before rushing it into practice.

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.