Essay-writing chatbot provokes concern about ‘dumbing down’ education

The surging popularity of ChatGPT — an artificial intelligence platform that can generate free annotated essays on demand in seconds — is making local teachers question their evaluation methods and the place AI should have, if any, in their classrooms.

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The surging popularity of ChatGPT — an artificial intelligence platform that can generate free annotated essays on demand in seconds — is making local teachers question their evaluation methods and the place AI should have, if any, in their classrooms.

“The potential power of AI unsettles me,” said teacher Thomas Chaput. “We don’t know where it’s going to go, what it’s going to look like in the future… and maybe it’s a dumbing down of education – I don’t know.”

Chaput works in a K-8 school in central Winnipeg and estimates approximately 20 per cent of the Grade 7 and 8 students in his building have started using the chatbot.

ChatGPT has attracted more than 100 million users worldwide since OpenAI, a research firm backed by Microsoft, launched a free beta version of its virtual assistant in late 2022.

In response to a text prompt, the app can produce everything from human-like advice to poetry.

 

Winnipeg school boards and education faculties are only starting to come to terms with the benefits and drawbacks of the resource and related technologies.

“The prevalence of ChatGPT and AI in education has initiated a live debate around teaching, learning, and assessment,” assistant superintendent Matt Henderson wrote in note sent to teachers in the Seven Oaks School Division Tuesday.

The email contained a list of articles on the subject, from ideas on how to integrate ChatGPT in classrooms to the reasons some schools block its use, for teacher discussion, curriculum meetings and faculty discussions.

As far as Henderson is concerned, it makes little sense to ban the platform on school grounds and “play defence in education,” as opposed to facilitating how students use it and tapping into AI’s potential to help learners solve quick problems as they work on larger inquiry projects.

“(Students and staff are already) manipulating it and testing the boundaries. They are creating and that’s really what we’re trying to push in Seven Oaks — ‘how do we use technology to create versus to consume?’” he told the Free Press.

“(Students and staff are already) manipulating it and testing the boundaries. They are creating and that’s really what we’re trying to push in Seven Oaks — ‘how do we use technology to create versus to consume?’”–Matt Henderson

The St. James-Assiniboia School Division informed staff in January it would not block ChatGPT or other AI tools.

Information technology manager Al Stechishin said doing so could exacerbate inequities since students with personal cellphone plans could still access it easily, while those who rely on division networks would not be able to.

Stechishin noted there are countless possibilities to positively use such technology and platforms that specialize in detecting AI-generated content if educators are worried about plagiarism.

Concerned about ChatGPT’s possible effect on education and independent study, one University of Manitoba professor recently organized a lecture on it to discuss the ethical and moral dimensions of the technology with teacher candidates.

Joanna Black has been researching AI for the last three years, and is well-versed in the possibility such programs spread biases and misinformation when they generate content.

The Manitoba Association of Education Technology Leaders’ stance is that educational programming should be reflective of the world that students live in and the reality is AI-assisted content creation is becoming increasingly common. (Richard Drew / Associated Press files)

Among her fears, Black worries users will end up relying on their shortcuts and as a result, neglect their personal development when it comes to fostering creativity and critical thinking.

The academic encourages her students to become informed about ChatGPT and when they run classrooms in the future, use the programs sparingly, educate pupils on the importance of academic integrity and emphasize the “process” of learning itself.

Chaput, who is Black’s graduate research assistant, discourages technology in his visual arts classroom.

The public school teacher said he wants his young students to be creative without technology and refrain from taking inspiration from the internet, which can often raise copyright issues, so they become independent learners.

The Manitoba Association of Education Technology Leaders’ stance is that educational programming should be reflective of the world that students live in and the reality is AI-assisted content creation is becoming increasingly common.

“It is understandable that educators are finding themselves in the ‘concern’ stage of this pattern (with the rise of ChatGPT).”–Kirsten Thompson

For president Kirsten Thompson, fears about bias in algorithms and the potential for students to defer to these technologies rather than think critically and problem-solve independently are valid. At the same time, she touts ChatGPT’s potential to be a useful educational and time-saving tool.

Thompson said the introduction of new technology results in a predictable pattern of “novelty, concern, adoption, and boredom” — and the rollout of spell-check, which many educators thought would be the demise of academic integrity, is the perfect case study.

“It is understandable that educators are finding themselves in the ‘concern’ stage of this pattern (with the rise of ChatGPT),” she said, adding she encourages teachers to learn about the programs and have conversations with students about their capabilities and limitations in different contexts.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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