In early December 2022 a research group in San Francisco named OpenAI released a free preview of a new artificial intelligence platform, ChatGPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer). Anyone who registered could enter a request for information about almost anything and receive an eloquently written response in just a few seconds.
A flurry of articles soon followed, both on social media and in the established media, expressing concern that artificial intelligence (AI) was becoming so powerful that it was taking human thought and creativity on a swift path towards obsolescence.
As Stephen Brook wrote in an article in Melbourne’s Sunday Age on 18th December:
When asked, it wrote instructions on how to remove peanut butter from a VCR in biblical verse: “And it came to pass that a man was troubled by a peanut butter sandwich, for it had been placed within his VCR, and he knew not how to remove it.” It created a dairy-free recipe for macaroni cheese and an essay comparing and contrasting the nationalism of political scientist Benedict Anderson and philosopher Ernest Gellner. It refused to write about the benefits of eating glass, declaring “there are none”.
For a few decades, educators have been increasingly wary of assignments submitted by students that were not their own work. Indeed, ghost-writing students’ assignments has been a growth industry in the last decade, especially for students who are required to submit assignments that are not in their first language. To get a free, persuasively written assignment in less than five seconds must seem like a dream come true for a student who is facing a looming deadline – a dream for the student, but a potential nightmare for the teacher who must assess the student’s performance fairly and justly.
So, how good is ChatGPT? I decided to give it a test run.
The first request I entered reflected my interest in the challenges facing school boards – I typed “Why is it important to declare conflicts of interest on school boards?” Five seconds later I had the following response on my screen, ready for copying and pasting:
Declaring conflicts of interest on school boards is important because it helps to ensure that decisions made by the board are objective and unbiased. Conflicts of interest can arise when a member of the board has a personal or financial interest in a matter being considered by the board. For example, a board member who owns a company that provides goods or services to the school district may have a conflict of interest when the board is considering a contract with that company.
If conflicts of interest are not declared and managed properly, they can lead to perceptions of corruption or favoritism and undermine public trust in the school board. By disclosing conflicts of interest, board members can avoid the appearance of impropriety and help to maintain the integrity and transparency of the decision-making process. In some cases, board members may be required to recuse themselves from discussions or votes on certain matters if they have a conflict of interest. This helps to ensure that decisions are made in the best interests of the school district and its students, rather than being influenced by personal or financial considerations.
I was quite impressed, so I decided to try and enter something less generic that could not possibly already be in ChatGPT’s memory: “In what ways are school boards different in Australia and Uganda?” Five seconds later…
School boards, also known as school governing bodies or school councils, play a similar role in both Australia and Uganda, but there may be some differences in the specific responsibilities and powers of school boards in these two countries.
In Australia, school boards are responsible for setting the strategic direction of a school and working with the school's principal to ensure that the school is meeting the needs of its students and community. School boards in Australia are typically made up of elected parents, teachers, and community members, and they may have the power to make decisions on issues such as the school's budget, curriculum, and policies.
In Uganda, school boards are also responsible for setting the direction of a school and working with the school's headteacher to ensure that the school is meeting the needs of its students and community. School boards in Uganda may be composed of a variety of stakeholders, including parents, teachers, community members, and government representatives. In addition to setting the strategic direction of a school, school boards in Uganda may also have the power to make decisions on issues such as the school's budget and resource allocation, as well as the hiring and evaluation of teachers.
Overall, while school boards in both Australia and Uganda play a similar role in the governance of schools, there may be some differences in the specific responsibilities and powers of school boards in these two countries, as well as in the composition of school boards and the processes for selecting their members.
Once again, factually correct (if not especially insightful), grammatically immaculate and confidently – almost compellingly - articulated. So I tried one final question on a topic that Chat GPT should understand: “How can a teacher tell the difference between an assignment that is written by a student without cheating and an assignment written by ChatGPT?”. This time the answer took about seven seconds to be typed on my screen”
There are a few ways that a teacher can tell the difference between an assignment written by a student and one written by a tool like ChatGPT:
- Style: ChatGPT and other language models are able to generate text that is structurally and grammatically correct, but it may lack the unique style and voice that a student's writing would have.
- Originality: ChatGPT and other language models are trained on a vast amount of text, so they may generate responses that include information that is widely available online or in books. A student's assignment should show their own original thoughts and ideas, rather than simply repeating information that can be found elsewhere.
- Understanding: A student's assignment should demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter, while an assignment generated by a tool like ChatGPT may not show the same level of understanding. A teacher can ask questions or give a quiz on the material to assess a student's understanding.
- Plagiarism: It is important for a teacher to check for plagiarism in any student's assignment. Plagiarism is the act of copying someone else's work and presenting it as your own. If a student has cheated by using ChatGPT or a similar tool, it is likely that the assignment will include content that is copied from other sources. Plagiarism detection software can be used to check for this.
It is important for teachers to be aware of the potential for students to use tools like ChatGPT and to take steps to prevent and detect cheating.
That sounds like good advice from ChatGPT – I have always thought the presence of a few minor errors, the insertion of some personal anecdotes, and evidence of discernment and reflections, together with good footnotes and bibliography, were signs of originality in assignments.
I suspect that Chat GPT could well challenge and even replace Google and other search engines before long. I know that is a bold claim, but it is surely far quicker and more efficient for a student (or a teacher) to receive a single coherent response to a question than to receive millions of links that must be individually read, sorted, considered, filtered, and then amalgamated. On the other hand, ChatGPT is somewhat like “Wikipedia for Dummies” in that everything it says is essentially derivative rather than original, and unlike Wikipedia, it doesn’t routinely quote sources.
I can understand the threat to original thinking, and to fair assessment, that AI may present to the world of education. Although the challenges need to be addressed and not ignored, I am much more optimistic about the future than the writers of many recent articles and social media posts (see the reading list below).
Rather than fearing the impact of AI on education, I think we need to tame it and embrace it as a tool to improve teaching and learning. The reality is that ChatGPT is a disrupter, just like ball-point pens, calculators and photocopiers were disrupters to earlier generations of educators. AI tools such as Chat GPT won’t disappear any time soon. The genie is out of the bottle, and its algorithms will almost certainly improve in quality.
I really believe schools need to adopt the same discerning but optimistic spirit that earlier generations used to embrace innovative disrupters, if for no other reasons that genuine disruptors never go away, they fundamentally change ways of working, and indeed they become integral components of the future society that today’s students will enter and eventually lead.
One example of teachers embracing Chat GPT could be to use AI as an aid to develop challenging Units of Enquiry or arguments for students to critique. Students could use AI to correct grammatical and spelling errors more quickly and thoroughly than at present, just as they will probably be doing in decades to come as AI becomes a near-universal, indispensable tool in everyday work.
To give you an idea of its editing potential, I typed this question into ChatGPT: “this sentents hav lots & lots and lots of gramarticle and spel mistracks, so can U fiks it 4 me?” In less than two seconds, this response appeared on my screen:
Sure, here is a revised version of the sentence with the grammar and spelling errors corrected: "This sentence has lots and lots and lots of grammar and spelling mistakes, so can you fix it for me?"
It seems that the possibilities are enormous if educators and school leaders can adopt a “solutions-based approach” and embrace this huge advance in AI capability.
-Dr Stephen Codrington
Postscript: Perhaps ChatGPT can’t replace humans just yet. I asked it to write a funny joke for me describing a school board’s interview of a prospective school principal. The response from ChatGPT was: “Why did the prospective school principal bring a ladder to the interview? Because he heard it was a high position!”.
Nice try, but I don’t think “Dad jokes” should be a threatened species just yet.
Artificial Intelligence is just one of the many challenges facing school boards and leaders that we explore during our very popular workshop OSG-S8 ’Directing and Managing Change’.
You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at https://optimalschool.com/articles.html. You can subscribe to receive future articles by e-mail using the red button below.