History does not record the first homework assignment completed with ChatGPT, the natural-language processing chatbot released by nonprofit OpenAI in November of 2022. Likely, the student who turned it in was not eager to share their accomplishment with the world.
But it probably happened within days, or even hours. Within a month, ChatGPT-generated essays were causing a tizzy in schools across the country.
It didn’t take long before school systems reacted. New York City Public Schools, Seattle Public Schools, and the Los Angeles Unified School District all blocked network and computer access to ChatGPT servers. Seattle explicitly lumped it in with cheating tools.
You and your schools may be considering similar measures. But before you make any decisions, it’s worth exploring your options for dealing with AI in schools.
Why Chatbots Are a Technology Breakthrough You Can’t Ignore
Today’s concerns in education revolve around the abilities of chatbots like ChatGPT, Microsoft’s Bing Chat, and Google’s Bard, all driven by large language models (LLMs) and machine learning algorithms.
These aren’t the only kind of AI being explored, or even implemented in the world today. Self-driving or even autopilot assisted vehicles use other kinds of AI; the video games your students are playing after class implement still others.
But the apparently preternatural ability of LLM-based AI to sub in for actual thinking, reasoning, and educational writing has made them the boogeyman that wakes school administrators up in a cold sweat at night.
Something clearly has to be done.
Options Are Limited for Educational Administrators Dealing With Large Language Model AI
When you get right down to it, there are really only two ways to address a pervasive new technology like chat bots: embrace or extinguish.
Many principals today are opting for the apparent, but false, third choice: ignore. But that’s just outsourcing the answer to your students.
And in one sense, framing the issue that way answers the question: how well have your efforts to stomp out social media worked out?
Chatbots, at least, offer a learning opportunity alongside the distraction. In fact, it might be a tremendously important technology in the lives of each of your students as they grow up in a world where AI advances will become more and more pervasive.
It’s entirely possible that what your kids learn about using and interpreting AI technologies in the next few years will be a foundation for their lives and careers.
So here are 8 ideas for how you can address AI in your schools in ways that are productive rather than reactive.
1. Get Familiar With the Technology
The public discourse is rife with misunderstandings of what is going on beneath the hood of chatbots. That’s led to a lot of unfounded worries as well as crediting them with undeserved abilities.
So you’ll reassure yourself and your teachers if you spend them time to unpack how large language models really work, at least at the 50,000 level. They aren’t magic! Once you learn they are basically a jumped-up version of autocomplete, they start to look a lot less threatening… and more interesting on several different levels.
You’ll be in a better position to assess how you can develop a curriculum in any class that will resist their abilities to take over learning processes from students, but can enhance those same students’ abilities to engage with and master that same technology.
2. Dive Into the Philosophy of AI
As you learn how LLMs actually work, you’ll come to understand how it is that they can neither think nor reason as a human mind can.
That understanding should lead naturally to the next question: what is it about the human mind and consciousness that is special? Is it replicable in a piece of software, no matter how complex? How will your students, looking at future generations of this kind of AI, be able to tell the difference?
What are the ethics of using AI tools for schoolwork? Is handing in an essay by a robot misrepresenting your own ability? Or is it no different than using a spellchecker to hone thoughts and expression as you intend them to appear?
What about the sources of those words that a chatbots spits out? Scraped from thousands of websites, is it fair or right that the original authors are uncredited? Or is it the same as when you read a variety of works and synthesize your own ideas and expressions from them?
There are no answers to these questions. But asking them engages in the prime directive of the entire educational establishment: it makes kids think.
3. Teach the Controversy
The reason you are reading this article is worth unpacking. Clearly, there’s something threatening about the capabilities of large language models to the educational establishment. There’s something about essays and answering test questions that both administrators and teachers seem to value.
The answers probably revolve around how Western education systems use those tools to develop thinking skills and assess the knowledge absorbed.
But students can benefit from explanations of why lessons are taught the way that they are. Why is it important to engage with logic and reason? Why do facts matter? Exploring the answers to these questions can show them exactly why you are concerned, and why they should be, too.
4. Develop Lessons to Showcase the Advantages… and Disadvantages
Chatbots are an amazing demonstration of a certain kind of AI technology. And they hold many advantages over humans when it comes to writing quickly and clearly. Students may learn how to use those qualities to their own advantage in school or eventually in business.
But chatbots exhibit a dark side as well. They fail basic tests of logic, arithmetic, and fact. They may have sudden bursts of racial or gender discrimination in language, dredged from source material that contains all those very human weaknesses.
When AI shows bias, is that similar or different to how humans themselves learn prejudice and express it? Or is it a different phenomenon?
It’s also instructive to poke at the holes exhibited in chatbots today. Beyond just coming up with funny conversations or set off a firestorm of controversy that make a splash on social media, having students explore why AI goes off the rails both shows its limitations and can help them understand what is really going on beneath the hood.
5. Track the Latest Developments
That this technology is being built out and improved during the formative years of your student’s lives is likely to be a source of wonder and nostalgia to them throughout their lives. Good or bad, no matter how it turns out, they’ll be telling their own children, “I remember when we read books written by actual human beings!”
This is a glorious real-time news story with effects on society and individuals that is still unfolding. And that makes it an opportunity to get the gears turning in heads throughout your school.
Students can be prompted to explore the latest implications and make their own prognostications about what is happening. And it’s happening so fast, you’re all likely to see some of the answers long before graduation.
6. Show the History of World-Changing Technologies
Large language models aren’t the first technological breakthrough with profound implications to lives and livelihoods. The computer systems they are developed on have their own history of breakthroughs and societal upheavals. So do even older technologies, from the loom to the printing press.
So it’s worth walking students through what people thought about those technologies when they were introduced and how those impacts and predictions ultimately played out.
7. Put the Technology in Context
While AI has the spotlight at the moment, it’s entirely possible it’s not even the most important new technology that is being developed today. CRISPR gene editing, for example, isn’t well-known or well-understood outside medical laboratories, but the potential for impact on health and welfare may end up far outpacing anything that AI accomplishes.
So broaden the horizons of interest in your school by encouraging students to think beyond their next homework assignment. Show them the larger explorations that ChatGPT is only a part of and let them reflect on other ways that AI may change their world.
8. Explore How Your Teachers Can Use It
Students aren’t the only ones that can take some shortcuts with chatbots; teachers, too, have been playing with the abilities of LLMs to do everything from generating assignments to evaluating student homework assignments.
While this could lead to the absurdly circular circumstance of a chatbot scoring an essay written by itself, it can also give you some tools to cut down on the workload of a workforce that is being pushed to the limits by current demands. So don’t be afraid to encourage your team to find ways that they can use chatbots themselves to do a better job as teachers, and to do it more easily.
Of course, all of these are things that ultimately happen in the classrooms. A school principal won’t be the one to sit down and teach or guide students in any of these areas.
But that’s what school leadership is about—inspiring your staff and giving them a roadmap that leads to where you believe the school should go. Each of them is wrestling with these problems in their own individual classrooms and wondering what answers to offer.
Coming to them with your own plans and guidance, and getting their feedback and adjustments, is ultimately how every education leader should be dealing with the explosion of artificial intelligence.