When high school English teacher Kelly Gibson first encountered ChatGPT in December, and the existential angst was building fast. While the Internet was delighted with the chatbot’s seemingly sophisticated responses to user queries, many educators were less surprised. If someone could ask ChatGPT to “write 300 words about what the green light symbolizes in The Great Gatsby”, what will prevent students from handing in their homework to the bot? There were rumors of a new era of rampant fraud and even the death knell for essays or education itself. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is literally what I’m teaching,’” Gibson says.
But amid the panic, some enterprising teachers see ChatGPT as an opportunity to change what learning looks like, and what they invent could determine the future of the classroom. Gibson is one of them. After her initial anxiety subsided, she spent the winter break fiddling with ChatGPT and figuring out how to incorporate it into her lessons. She can ask the children to generate text using the bot and then edit it themselves to find the chatbot’s mistakes or improve its writing style. Gibson, who has been teaching for 25 years, likened it to more familiar tech tools that enhance rather than replace learning and critical thinking. “I don’t know how to do it well yet, but I want AI chatbots to become something like writing calculators,” she says.
Gibson’s view of ChatGPT as a learning tool rather than a complete hoax raises an important point: ChatGPT is not as smart as humans, despite its ability to spew human-like text. It is a statistical machine that can sometimes repeat or create falsehoods and often needs guidance and further changes to make things right.
Despite these limitations, Gibson also believes that she is responsible for using ChatGPT in the classroom. She teaches in a predominantly white, rural, low-income area of Oregon. If only students who have access to internet-connected devices at home are able to experience the bot, it could widen the digital divide and make things even worse for students who don’t have access. So, Gibson decided that she could turn ChatGPT, in the language of an educator, into a learning moment for all of her students.
Other educators who dismiss the idea of an educational apocalypse suggest that ChatGPT may not be breaking education at all, but drawing attention to the fact that the system is already broken. “Another way to think about it is not how do you find new forms of assessment, but what are our priorities in further education at the moment? And maybe they’re a little broken,” says Alex Taylor, who researches and teaches human-computer interaction at City University London.
Taylor says the bot sparked discussions with colleagues about the future of testing and evaluation. If a chatbot can answer a series of actual test questions, was the test a worthy measure of learning anyway? According to Taylor, the kind of rote questions that a chatbot could answer do not spur learning that would help his students think better. “I think sometimes we go backwards,” he says. “We’re just like, ‘How the hell can we test people to meet a certain performance level or some metrics?’ Whereas in reality education should be connected to a much broader idea.”