ChatGPT: Educational friend or foe?

The invention of the telephone in 1876 was met with simultaneous amazement and trepidation. Critics wondered if phones would disrupt face-to-face communication in ways that made us either too active or lazy. When television entered our homes, we fretted about the potential harms of the box and screen time in every living room. Surely, this would create a society of couch potatoes who do not even notice the people sitting by their side and fail to engage in more important activities. The definition of “screen time” was later broadened to include the impacts of digital content and “social media” on children. Indeed, a recent article in The Atlantic by Professor John Haidt warns that the generation raised on social media could even imperil American capitalism and culture.

The latest challenge to the creative human intellect was introduced on November 30th, 2022 by OpenAI. ChatGPT is a conversational bot responsive to users’ questions in ways that allows it to search large databases and to create well-formed essays, legal briefs, poetry in the form of Shakespeare, computer code, or lyrics in the form of Rogers and Hammerstein, to name a few. As New York Times writer Kevin Roose commented, “ChatGPT is, quite simply, the best artificial intelligence chatbot ever released to the general public.”

Used in the right way, ChatGPT can be a friend to the classroom and an amazing tool for our students, not something to be feared.

As with the telephone, however, ChatGPT is primarily being met with amazement and trepidation. Some in education fear that students will never need to learn to write, as they can merely lean on ChatGPT. Writing for The Atlantic, English teacher Daniel Herman worried that ChatGPT spelled “The End of High School English.” In the same publication, Stephen Marche declared the college essay “dead.” Fortune Magazine quipped, “Is Chat GPT the end of trust? Will the college essay survive?” On January 3, 2023, the New York City Department of Education took the dramatic step of responding to these fears by blocking access to ChatGPT on all department devices and networks. A department spokesperson justified the decision due to “…concerns about negative impacts on student learning, and concerns regarding the safety and accuracy of content.” She further questioned the educational value of the technology, stating: “While the tool may be able to provide quick and easy answers to questions, it does not build critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which are essential for academic and lifelong success.”

Educators, opinion writers, and researchers are engaged in a vibrant discussion about the implications of ChatGPT right now. The emerging consensus is that teachers and professors might be tricked. That is—ChatGPT would surely pass the Turing test. For example, Daniel Herman describes how the program drafted a reasonable college essay, a cover letter to serve as a manager at Starbucks, and even an academic paper comparing two texts. Microbiologist Alex Berezow further discovered that ChatGPT excelled at answering short-response questions from a college-level microbiology quiz. However, the essays produced by ChatGPT are still identifiable as bot-produced, rather than human-produced, due to a few fundamental flaws. The high school English paper that the program composed for Daniel Herman was superficial and lacked references. Other reports indicate that the program includes inaccurate information and fails to provide a compelling perspective, linking the writer and reader.

In our own test, the first author (Kathy) gave the bot a complicated essay question that she asks her Honors psychology students to answer. It did a respectable job. Yet—the bot produced no more than a B- or C+ essay. Why? To date, the bot cannot distinguish the “classic” article in a field that must be cited from any other article that reviews the same content. The bot also tends to keep referencing the same sources over and over again. These are issues that can be easily resolved in the next iteration.

More centrally, however, is that the bot is more of a synthesizer than a critical thinker. It would do well on a compare-and-contrast essay, but is less able to create a unique thesis and to defend that thesis.

As educators, we strive to make our students what John Bruer, former president of the McDonnell Foundation, dubbed knowledge transformers, rather than knowledge digesters. That means…

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