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CVHS chats about ChatGPT

Write a poem. Explain how to get a derivative. What should I have for dinner? Within seconds, ChatGPT has the answers. 

In November 2022, the launch of this generative pre-trained transformer took the world by storm. Continually developed by OpenAI, a San Francisco-based artificial intelligence (AI) research lab, ChatGPT is capable of processing questions or prompts and drawing up sophisticated, human-like responses, formatted as conversational replies. The model offers a free research preview, which can be fun to experiment with or serve as a useful tool in day-to-day life.

“I’ve been using it for personal things so far,” commented English teacher Tina Johansson, who is utilizing ChatGPT as an initial planning tool for a summer trip. 

Senior Tony Mei, meanwhile, started experimenting with ChatGPT while preparing for Science Olympiad and quickly discovered its usefulness: “I was researching some topics in marine biology, and … ChatGPT help[ed] me understand some concepts like a teacher could.” 

When considering the use of ChatGPT in traditional academic settings, these positive sentiments begin to change.

“If you were to rely on it [ChatGPT] solely, you would get yourself in trouble. Because sometimes when you ask education-type questions, the information … [it responds with is] wrong,” warned Johansson. As an exercise, she fed prompts into ChatGPT and had her students grade the responses. They found that all the responses failed, partially because “they don’t ever give specific evidence.”

Such flaws result from ChatGPT’s limitations. Obviously, misinterpretations of prompts and questions sometimes lead to inaccurate answers, but other issues arise due to the way ChatGPT was first developed. Because the model was trained using a dataset up to 2021 from the internet, it has restricted knowledge on the latest news and obscure niches.

Interestingly, while these limitations may cause ChatGPT to struggle with writing factual English essays, social studies teacher Juan Escalante has discovered the chatbot’s reliability in writing near-flawless history papers.

“I have thought about using it as a resource for [teaching] writing, seeing as a lot of these generators can produce perfect scores on AP exams based on the format and style that they write it,” explained Escalante. “It could potentially be a good resource to show the style of writing, or how to write a thesis, or how to organize [a] paper.”

To junior Tomi Chen, on the other hand, the fact that a chatbot can write a perfect formulaic-type essay reveals a more critical underlying issue.

“A lot of people have pointed out that if your assignment is doable by a computer then it probably wasn’t a good assignment to begin with,” Chen mused. “I think repetitive work that’s easy for computers to do might not be the most useful for humans. I personally believe that, in general, if technology can do something so I don’t need to do it, that’s usually a good thing.”

Teachers fear, however, that using ChatGPT is detrimental to the deeper learning that assignments like essays aim to provoke.

“The thing we’re trying to teach students isn’t the answer,” explained English teacher Trenton Logan. “What I’m trying to encourage is critical thinking. And the essay prompt is meant to be a more … tangible way to teach students to … think independently. And so if they’re able to just find answers online, it can lead to a situation where they’re not able to develop those skills that are … important in every facet of life.” 

“My hope personally is not that you know how to write a perfect paper, but that you know how to structure a cohesive, complex argument that addresses … a counterclaim and looks at the complexity of situations,” agreed Escalante. “Writing … in general make[s] you a more well-rounded person when it comes to education.”

As ChatGPT use proliferates, CVHS staff are increasingly concerned about cheating. 

“The main concern is that some won’t learn to write essays on their own. Cheating ultimately leads to students having learning gaps that affect them later in their education,” commented Assistant Principal Kevin Baker.

Measures to counter the use of ChatGPT have sprung up in school districts across the nation. Since mid-December, the chatbot has been banned on all CVUSD devices.

Crucially, while both students and staff generally agree that this ban is justified, some question its true efficacy.

“ChatGPT being banned on school devices won’t stop students from accessing it on different devices and networks,” Mei said. “It’s more important for teachers to put their students in situations where they are actively problem-solving and learning.”

Logan wondered further how the ban may intersect with pre-existing inequalities.

“I’m a little bit concerned that … students [who] have their own devices can use a mobile hotspot and then use it on their own device, whereas the students who are using school-issued Chromebooks will not have access.”

Teachers like Logan have also begun implementing their own preventative measures.

“I have been … experimenting with ways to catch students. There’s a lot of tools out there to catch students, maybe as many as there are to cheat,” he reflected, noting that he has seen a significant uptick in students cheating using AI. “It’s kind of like an arms race.”

Additionally, Logan explained that he is altering his teaching and assignments to adapt to ChatGPT: “In the short term, it’s more in-class essays that are handwritten … I’ve [also] been doing responses that are more personal in nature for take home stuff. Things that are like, ‘What is your opinion? Write it down and be prepared to share.’”

ChatGPT and its impacts on student learning remain a controversial and nuanced topic as both students and staff consider what AI means for education.

“[So far] the most … I’ve used [ChatGPT] in the classroom is to show the students how they could use it and its pitfalls,” said Johansson. “I’m hopeful that might be a cool tool, but the way it is right now, it’s just kind of fun.”

“[Currently,] I’m not sure it has a net positive or negative,” Chen observed. “Certainly … [it may] get better and actually be useful for learning new things, like a private tutor would be cool.”

Mei is more optimistic about the change it could bring: “In my opinion, ChatGPT will change education for the better. Maybe others would call it a threat, but to me, it’s more of a wake-up call to students and professors to get their game on.”